I have always been supremely sceptical of the value of tertiary study for journalism. I may have just changed my mind. I can recommend a course in which the aspiring journalist is, against their will but for their own education, placed somewhere near the centre of a unfolding news story. Especially one where the opposite side of the story has ready access to the media as well as guaranteed interest, and your side does not; indeed, is beset by confusion and doubt. This is the position in which I found myself last week, when Sally Warhaft, my friend, was axed as editor of The Monthly, to which I was the biggest contributor. A curly ethical issue. Who was I? A friend, a reporter, a source or a Monthly stalwart?

The last went first, the instant I was rung by the proprietor Morry Schwartz. I like Morry. I really do. He has now rendered three of my friends unemployed — The Monthly’s first editor Chris Ryan and the Australian Quarterly Essay’s first editor Peter Craven before Sally — and I don’t even really hold it against him. I can think of too much in his favour.

But in this case, I had been for nine months a mainly mute observer of the deteriorating environment at The Monthly and been appalled that individuals so intelligent and previously friendly could fall apart so irrevocably. An act of grace here, a gesture of magnanimity there, and surely this situation could have been avoided. Which is what I told Morry — that he’d let me, us, down.

Chucking in work for The Monthly would obviously cost me a lot of money, but that was the least reason not so. I have always felt intensely loyal to The Monthly. I was always happy to admit its shortcomings, precisely because I was dedicated to tackling them. And, while never been much of a joiner, I liked identifying with it. I wore out five Monthly bags. My wife made me a Monthly t-shirt. Although I received a free copy, I always paid for a subscription, and bought other subscriptions as gifts for friends at home and abroad.

Why? Not because I thought it was perfect, or even some months that it was particularly great. Simply for two reasons: firstly, because it seemed like the kind of publication of which, partly from self-interest but mainly out of general enthusiasm, I should be in favour; secondly, because the people were great, and their office the happiest I have known. Perhaps, in the end, it was the expectation that loyalty should be reciprocated that meant I couldn’t bear the thought of working under such changed circumstances.

My first concern became Sally. I was, as even Robert Manne seems utterly fascinated by, her partner, before she edited The Monthly; I know her, therefore, as well as anyone, personally and professionally. She has probably called me more names than anyone I know. She is smart, quick, funny, charismatic; she’s also volatile, can be strident and gets her back up. I’ll be honest. I had misgivings about her becoming editor, to do mainly with her lack of media background: she is a PhD in anthropology. I was wrong. Morry was right. She exhibited three great virtues: she will talk to anyone, is interested in everything; she is no respecter of reputations or dealer in received wisdoms; she is ethical, almost to the point of moralism.

So I felt protective. Wouldn’t you? I’ll not go into detail about the week that followed. Suffice it to say it was challenging, once in a while emotional. Manne may thrive on public controversies, but I don’t relish them and Sally has hated every second of this one. I know that her mobile rang incessantly, but that she took calls from almost nobody except her family. As I said, Sally is ethical to the point of primness; it’s even a bit annoying sometimes. She’d promised Morry that she wouldn’t talk to the media, and she went even further — she wouldn’t even answer the scores of calls and emails she received from well-wishing contributors. One famous novelist, I know, left five voice mails of increasing concern for her welfare; I urged her to call him back, at least for his sake, but she refused.

Given Manne alleges that “Sally’s supporters, led by her former partner Gideon Haigh, began talking to reporters, for the most part anonymously”, it is worth setting the record straight: On the day Sally was defenestrated, I read the press release that Morry had issued. It made no mention of what she had accomplished in terms of The Monthly’s profile or circulation. This struck me as a churlish omission. When a reporter from The Age rang and complained of difficulty getting people to speak for quotation, I said I thought she was the best editor I’ve worked for.

I’m not sure, actually, that I’ve been lucky enough to work for a great one; among the good ones I’ve known, Sally was certainly a stand-out. Little did I know that this would in part provoke the increasingly vindictive and punitive response of the editorial board, for there were others speaking in Sally’s favour on condition of non-attribution.

At that stage, I spoke to only two other journalists. One was Mischa Ketchell from Media Watch, who rang Friday night, but whose program then did not then run anything. The other was Jonathan Green from Crikey on Monday. This was a fluke. Last week my landline crashed for four days. I was walking to the State Library of Victoria to work there when Jonathan rang my mobile. I said I could tell him nothing about particular events but was happy to offer some off-the-record impressions. I recognised one of them in Jonathan’s subsequent piece: “revenge of the middle-aged bores”. I don’t remember saying that a future editor would be “Robert Manne’s valet”, but it sounds like me, so I’m happy to take responsibility for that too. Of the rest I’ve no knowledge.

Given that the “cloak of anonymity” adopted by its critics has so alarmed the board, I should say that I took advantage of it here only because it was offered me, and over the next couple of days, apart from checking in on Sally, actually did nothing. Crikey asked me to write something. I declined. The “led” in Manne’s allegation against me implies orchestration on my part. But even now, the only contributors I’ve had contact with since Sally’s departure are John Hirst, with whom I briefly swapped impressions ten days ago, and Leigh Sales, whom I emailed to thank for her generous comments about Sally in The Australian last week.

It is not only in this matter that Manne’s imagination is playing him false. Embarking in Monday’s Australian on the assumption that I was the author of all his woes, Manne wielded the blunt instrument of an accusation of hypocrisy: “That this story was principally authored by Haigh is rather ironic. I will never forget his scathing attack on The Age, on local ABC radio in June 2005, following Andrew Jaspan’s decision to encourage a few young female journalists on to its opinion page. They are still bearing the scars.” The beastly cad!

The story is this. I was asked on 774 my opinion of The Age. I gave it honestly. The thrust of my critique was that The Age had become too design driven; form was gazumping substance at every turn. Its new and execrable Metro liftout, for instance, had opened up column space on its second page for no reason other than that design seemed to dictate it. As a result, (often good) journalists were being cajoled into becoming (generally mediocre) columnists. There is an irony here — almost undetectably small. One of the “young female journalists” I mentioned was actually reporting this story last week. Gabriella Coslovich is an excellent reporter; in this matter, she did a studiously fair-minded job. I must have missed her “scars”.

My point in 2005 was not about young female journalists. It was that writing regular columns is an art. Not everyone can do it. I can’t do it, which is why I haven’t. Jaspan’s decision struck me as disserving the paper and the writers concerned. I can only assume that The Age came round to this view because the section, the columns and finally Jaspan vanished. My critique of The Age was far more wide-ranging than Manne “will never forget”, focusing chiefly on the editor. For this, I served a three-and-a-half-year penance that did not end until Jaspan left. Which, by the way, was fine. Do the crime, do the time.

But if this insignificant interlude is indicative of anything, it is that I don’t mind expressing my opinion in public even when it’s against my interests. My stance in the matter of The Monthly therefore is not “rather ironic” but entirely consistent.

Last week the critics of Sally’s editorship formed two groups. One including Guy Rundle, Greg Barns and numerous blog commenters embarked on a general moan that The Monthly wasn’t the way that they would run it. I sympathise. The Monthly wasn’t the way I would have run it exactly either. But The Monthly has always been a captive of its contributors. It had no staff writer; it had no staff, really (three increased recently to four). Sally’s mistake may have been making it look too easy; as I knew, it was a constant struggle, thanks to chronic unreliability of writers, and in more recent times the unpredictable humours of its board. Those remaining to run The Monthly will now learn that it’s not as simple as it appears.

Guy is an exceptionally gifted writer, whose work I enjoy even when I disagree with it. But when he writes about his former country from his roving commission overseas, I sometimes detect a residual disappointment, a sense of “Why-o-Why-Is-There-No-Proper-Australian-Left-To-Genuflect-To-My-Genius?” At least he pre-emptively described his musings as “smug payback”, but this was all they were. He pined for a “magazine with teeth”. Guy, magazines don’t have teeth; they have pages, words, pictures. Your idea of a magazine with teeth is … what … Arena? You may have spent much of your life writing for little magazines — as have I — but do try not to delude yourself that even the good ones matter that much.

The more serious malcontents were of The Monthly’s own household, for Robert Manne was off on a self-serving folly of his own. He took seething exception to mention of his recent ill-health — which I could understand. But he also began to fixate on what he imagined was some form of “campaign” in progress to spread Sally’s “side” of the story — and nobody out-campaigns Robert Manne. He started giving off-the-record interviews — and that’s ironic, considering his disapproval of others speaking without attribution. He directed journalists to solicit comment from the very small group of writers — remarkably small in my view — with whom he knew Sally had disagreed. He has now published without Sally’s permission a private email to him from November 2007 — which actually proves nothing except what everyone knows, that at the time everyone got on famously. Above all, last week on Crikey, he published what must be the silliest and most self-defeating article he has ever written.

I was once a great admirer of Manne’s writing. Lately I have nurtured more reservations. This effort bordered on self-parody, complete with the pretence of clinical detachment, the undertone of deep moral gravity, and the familiar stylistic tics (including that silky smooth: “Let me lay this out as fairly as I can”). To parse the piece factually would be to dignify it, but one calumny cannot be allowed to stand because to my uneducated eye it appears defamatory, and because Manne repeated it in Monday’s Australian. It is his conjecture about the reasons Sally objected to his opening paragraph in the May Monthly, that the magazine was “surprised and gratified” to have been offered prime minister’s Rudd’s essay some months earlier, which is that “she did not want the world to know that she had not asked Rudd for the piece.”

Sally was always extremely open, to the extent of explaining it on 774, that Rudd’s essay followed an offer from the prime minister. Manne’s repeated untruth seems to have originated in a minor mistake by The Australian’s Caroline Overington, expeditiously corrected on her blog:

Earlier this week, I said that Dr Warhaft had commissioned the now-famous Rudd essay on the economic crisis. That was a mistake. The mistake was mine. The essay was offered to The Monthly. I don’t know why I thought Dr Warhaft had commissioned it. Certainly, she never told me that. It must have been an impression I formed. Now it’s being used against her. I won’t let that stand. I apologise for the error.

I take it that Manne will also issue a similarly prompt apology.

This gratuitous and repeated vilification of Sally required answering. I did so openly and under my own name. Generally, in fact, I am happy to be quoted — it seems fair since, as a journalist, I hope for candour from others. I commend the attitude of Ian Chappell when once I asked him if something was on the record: “If there’s something I don’t want reported, I won’t f-ckin’ tell you.”

By last Friday, Manne had managed to gather a tiny supporting chorus, and very occasional contributor Mark Aarons and non-contributor Ron Sharp joined him trashing Sally. Affairs were now completely topsy-turvey. Sally had lost a job she loved and did very well. Sally was still saying nothing, abiding by her understanding with Morry. But these old, established, powerful men — they were the victims!

Think about it. Here they were, these pillars of rectitude, banging on and on about people breaking vows of silence they’d never made; and here was the woman they depicted as hysterical, intractable and difficult to work finally appearing on 774 on Friday morning (by long-standing prior arrangement) and under Jon Faine’s persistent questioning saying simply how much she had enjoyed working at the magazine. I wasn’t alone in detecting in the attacks by Manne, Aarons and Sharp a streak of truly obnoxious sexism. The woman had been rude. The woman had not treated them with the respect they thought they deserved. Why didn’t the woman just do as she was told? Let’s hope she doesn’t develop any “scars” as a result. We know how terrible Robert Manne feels about those.

Very belatedly I published an article in Saturday’s Age exploring the origins of the dispute. It speaks my piece rather than Sally’s and was something I felt bound to publish rather than seriously wishing to. For many years, as I said, and made clear in the article, I esteemed Manne, and read him keenly. Now Mencken’s dictum comes to mind: “Every hero eventually becomes a bore.” Someone — I don’t know who — has said that Manne is intent on “roaring back” to public life through The Monthly after his illness. Manne’s voluminous wounded commentaries on this episode belie his denials that this is the case.

This has been a deeply unpleasant experience for all concerned but, as I said, not uninstructive. I’m now back at work, a little poorer in prospect, but also a little more experienced. I certainly know a great deal more about Robert Manne than when this started — including some stuff I almost wish I had never found out.