It doesn’t get much sexier in journalism circles than court cases that threaten to strip bare the inner workings of poisonous newsrooms. That’s what we got a tiny taste of this morning when the long-awaited Bruce Robert Guthrie v News Limited case kicked off before Justice Kaye in the Victorian Supreme Court.
The massive court book prepared on Guthrie’s behalf threatens to unleash a treasure trove of privileged News Limited contact between Guthrie, Herald and Weekly Times chief Peter Blunden, former News chair (and Rupert Murdoch’s sister) Janet Calvert-Jones and Australian boss John Hartigan.
This morning was limited to introductory remarks establishing Guthrie’s bona fides before the juicier evidence was skirted over, much of which will be revisited later on in the five-day, $2.7 million unfair dismissal trial.
The case centres on the “expectation of loss” provision of industrial law, especially a clause that enabled for the renegotiation of the terms of Guthrie’s contract after 30 months that would have presumably led to a sit-down meeting in September 2009 — if he hadn’t been given his marching orders by Hartigan 10 months earlier.
Guthrie sat passively alongside his wife, Age food and wine scribe Janne Apelgren, and his two teenage children while the court heard intimate details of his $390,000 salary, $194,000 bonus payment, relocation inducements and free Foxtel subscriptions that formed part of his News contract.
Guthrie’s reputation was quickly established — from his debut on The Herald as a copy boy in 1972, right through to his “summary” dumping by Hartigan in November 2008 on the 13th floor of the Herald and Weekly Times’ Southbank building.
The court heard contact between Hartigan and Guthrie was rare, but when it occurred usually involved something explosive relating to internecine wrangling inside the organisation.
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Amusingly after last week’s implosion, Guthrie and Blunden disagreed over whether the paper should have sent a photographer to cover a Melbourne Storm trip to Europe in February 2008, with Blunden maintaining it would have been worthwhile to support the wholly-owned News Limited subsidiary with a few images from the road.
Contact between Hartigan and former HWT chief Julian Clarke was thoroughly documented, with one chain of events fingering then-Victoria Police chief Christine Nixon, who had apparently complained to Guthrie (via AFL chief Andrew Demetriou) over coverage of a 2007 drugs scandal. The court heard Nixon remarked that the Herald Sun scribe who wrote the story, Sam Edmund, had been the “police informant” who had tipped off authorities to the identity of the player involved.
Nixon also apparently complained, through Blunden, about the paper’s coverage on a subsequent occasion in 2008. Which is interesting, because rumours continue to persist that it was Nixon who got in Calvert-Jones’ ear over the infamous Beverly Hills Cop front page and a subsequent editorial that had pilloried Nixon over a trip to Los Angeles paid for by Qantas later that year.
The court heard Calvert-Jones had indeed complained about the front page. But if Calvert-Jones had been a long-time behind the scenes critic, she wasn’t showing it — just six weeks earlier had sent her personal congratulations to commend Guthrie’s “fantastic team of journalists”.
And the official acrimony appeared to be short-lived, because it was none other than News chief Rupert Murdoch who subsequently commended Guthrie for another front page four days later.
That other possible explanation for Guthrie’s departure — a decline in circulation — was refuted after the court heard Hartigan personally congratulated Guthrie on “very impressive” Roy Morgan readership figures at around the same time of his sacking.
The final piece of email correspondence between Blunden and Guthrie suggested the directive to cut the veteran editor loose was issued from afar. In a parting salvo, Blunden reassured Guthrie that “there was no personal tension real or perceived” and “no ill feeling whatsoever”, before wishing him “best of luck” and “every success in the future”.