It is a truth universally acknowledged that only the very brave or the very foolish buy a battle with News Limited. That company takes no prisoners. It fights to win.

And yet it also has an eye to its reputation. So it is that over the past few months, a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to gather evidence against former editor in chief of the Herald Sun Bruce Guthrie, with a view to destroying his reputation.

Guthrie, Crikey readers will remember, is suing News Limited for $2.7 million, claiming that he was sacked in a “capricious, unfair and unreasonable” fashion on November 10, 2008, by News Limited CEO John Hartigan.

Most people thought this case would have settled by now, but it hasn’t. It is due to begin in the Supreme Court on April 27, and is set down for a five-day hearing. I understand both sides have girded their loins for the fray and believe the case will go ahead.

Crikey has already published Guthrie’s writ, which contains juicy accounts of conversations with Hartigan and Herald Sun managing director Peter Blunden, in which the latter is said to have referred to mysterious “third parties” being behind the Guthrie boning.

But in December 2008, Blunden denied the thrust of Guthrie’s writ, and promised in a memo to staff that when the time came, he would “provide a comprehensive and compelling case for our decision to terminate [Guthrie’s] employment”.

The compiling of that “compelling case” has been under way for some months, and the result focuses on Guthrie’s allegedly poor relationship with Herald Sun section heads, including advertising and circulation, his supposedly “off-hand manner” and other more serious allegations that, his enemies predict, will cause him to regret his decision to sue.

We can safely assume that some of this, at least, is bluff and bluster. News Limited does not forgive betrayal.

The Australian journalistic landscape is littered with people who have felt the sharp end of the News Limited boot. The conventional means of dealing with bonings is to negotiate hard, but behind closed doors, for decent payouts.

The boned ones then have second comings once all is forgiven or their mates within the empire ride to the rescue. Even the truly deserted can reappear as down table subs or in other low profile roles. In short, it doesn’t pay to fall out publicly with News Limited, or to stand on principle.

Guthrie, clearly, has decided on a different approach and as a result we have a court case that could be the bloodiest and messiest media stoushes in a long time.

I understand that there was a court-ordered mediation in May last year, but that failed to resolve the matter. Since then, there has been no talk of settlement. Hard though it is to believe, to all intents and purposes it seems the case is going ahead — although, of course, such things often settle virtually on the steps of the court once the game of bluff is exhausted.

If the case does go ahead, Hartigan at least  and probably Blunden are expected in the witness box, under cross examination by Guthrie’s lawyers. On the other side there will be a sustained effort to trash Guthrie’s reputation.

Sources inside the empire are keen to point out that Guthrie has been something of a serial editor. He was stood down as editor of The Age in 1997 after his vigorous criticism of the Kennett state government apparently brought him in to conflict with the Fairfax board.

There is no doubt that Guthrie has plenty of enemies.  There are many who are prepared to declare themselves fans of  the current Herald Sun editor, Simon Pristel.

Yet there are others who have left since Guthrie’s time amid mutterings of discontent about the lack of serious political reporting, the decline of good writing and a renewed emphasis on celebrity and flim flam.

In short, the Melbourne home of News Limited is deeply factionalised, and a great deal of sh-t on the liver is likely to find its way to the Supreme Court if this case is really allowed to proceed.

If it goes ahead, there will be no better show in town in late April 2010 than Guthrie v News Limited.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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