An unnamed “third party” forced last month’s sacking of Herald Sun editor-in-chief Bruce Guthrie, according to court documents lodged today in support of a $2.7 million claim for wrongful dismissal.
In a statement of claim lodged in the Supreme Court of Victoria, Guthrie claims Herald & Weekly Times Managing Director Peter Blunden told him immediately after his dismissal that the sacking made him “sick to my stomach”.
“This is not me,” Blunden is alleged to have said. “I am not driving this.”
Asked by Guthrie who was responsible, Blunden, “breathing heavily”, allegedly replied: “It’s complicated and it’s confidential. I can’t go into it too deeply. But essentially a third party got involved. That person said something to someone who said something to someone else and it went from there.”
Guthrie was sacked without warning about midday on Monday, November 10, by News Limited CEO, John Hartigan. It came just two weeks after the most recent visit to Australia by News Corp chief, Rupert Murdoch.
The documents reveal Hartigan had given Guthrie a pay rise just 10 weeks earlier, taking his annual salary from $390,000 a year to $410,000 a year from September 1. At the same time the company paid him a $30,000 performance bonus.
In the writ, Guthrie recounts the conversation in which he was sacked by Hartigan claiming the CEO apologised for his treatment.
“We are prepared to be generous because we have given you a real sh-t sandwich.” Hartigan is alleged to have said.
Earlier he told Guthrie he’s being sacked because of ongoing tensions with Blunden.
“I can’t have a situation at the Herald Sun , one of our most important papers, where the Managing Director and the Editor in Chief are not getting on,” Hartigan allegedly said.
Guthrie replied: “That is simply not true … John, hand on my heart, there have been no conversations like that, I don’t know what you are talking about”.
Hartigan, “gobsmacked”, says he can’t overturn the sacking because “there are too many things in place”. He added: “I’m very sorry.”
Seven hours later, Blunden rang Guthrie, while he was overseeing production of the next day’s Herald Sun , to express dismay at Guthrie’s removal and tell him he’d assured Hartigan the pair got on.
“I told Harto we have a good working relationship. I told him we watched the (Melbourne) Cup together,” Blunden is alleged to have said.
Guthrie says his dismissal after just 21 months in the job was “capricious, unfair and unreasonable” and denied him at least one further three-year contract. The documents reveal News Limited and he were due to begin negotiations on a new contract in July next year.
Guthrie is seeking $2,765,745, being chiefly a three-year continuation of his total salary package at the time of his dismissal — $698,915pa — plus projected annual increments, termination payments and notice.