Why was Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie sacked? He was told it was because he couldn’t get on with his boss Herald Sun managing director and former editor-in-chief Peter Blunden. But was the real reason for his removal a front-page story that embarrassed Victoria’s police commissioner?

Rumours are swirling through the media industry that Guthrie’s dismissal was triggered by a complaint directly to Rupert Murdoch about a Herald Sun report of controversial free travel taken by Victorian police chief Christine Nixon courtesy of Qantas in late October.

The Nixon story was given full front page treatment by Guthrie in the edition of October 23 after the commissioner and her husband took a freebie aboard the airline’s inaugural A380 flight between Melbourne and Los Angeles.

Under the headline, “Beverly Hills Cop”, Nixon defended her decision to take the free flight and accommodation at the luxury Sofitel Hotel in L.A.

It is believed that within hours of publication Blunden had passed on to Guthrie serious misgivings about the paper’s coverage. Rupert Murdoch arrived in Melbourne three days later. According to insiders, concerns over the Nixon story were passed directly to the News Limited chief. Guthrie’s fate, they say, was sealed during his visit.

In court documents lodged yesterday in support of Guthrie’s wrongful dismissal claim, Blunden is alleged to have distanced himself from the sacking, claiming it was the work of a third party.

Asked by Guthrie who was responsible, Blunden 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”.

Other insiders dispute the Nixon theory behind Guthrie’s sacking, but still implicate Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the “third party” referred to by Blunden. Blunden they say, had never been easy with the way in which Guthrie had edited and re-moulded the Herald Sun as a paper keen to take on the lucrative A-B demographic traditionally captured by The Age. He had made repeated comments to Herald Sun staff through the entire duration of Guthrie’s editorship expressing these misgivings, misgivings that had ultimately been expressed to Murdoch directly during his Melbourne visit..

Whatever the cause, the sacking baffled many media insiders. In the eight weeks before it Guthrie had accepted the PANPA Newspaper of the Year Award, the News Limited Website of the Year Award and delivered record readership growth despite industry-wide circulation falls. Writing in The Age the day after Guthrie’s dismissal, Andrew Rule reported Hartigan had expressed misgivings about removing his appointee. In September he’d given Guthrie a pay rise and a bonus for his performance in the job.

Four days after Guthrie’s sacking the Police Commissioner, who’ll step down early next year, issued a public apology over the Qantas trip and said she would be making full restitution of the costs of the travel and accommodation.

The dramatic mea culpa came after the intervention of the Office of Police Integrity.