Staunch rugby league supporter, News Limited supremo John Hartigan, has outed himself as a closet Collingwood fan, claiming that putting the team on the front page of the Herald Sun has the potential to add 30,000 copies to its daily circulation.
Giving evidence in the Victorian Supreme Court this morning in sacked Herald Sun editor-in-chief Bruce Guthrie’s $2.7 million unfair dismissal trial, Hartigan cited News folklore that the appearance of black and white colours on the front page of the Melbourne tabloid usually results in a sales bonanza.
“It’s certainly the industry view that Collingwood Football Club, when you put them on the front page, you sell a lot of extra copies,” Hartigan said.
Under cross examination this morning by Norman O’Bryan, SC, for Guthrie, Hartigan insisted more people love the Pies than hate them, prompting mirth from Justice Stephen Kaye and several AFL-mad members of the gallery.
O’Bryan appeared to refute Hartigan’s claims, presenting to the court circulation statistics suggesting a May 24, 2008 front page featuring Pies star Tarkyn Lockyer didn’t result in a sales bounce — the figures were on par with the same month’s news events, including a riot of cab drivers outside Flinders Street Station.
The exchange came in the middle of a tense hearing over whether Guthrie had erred in allocating insufficient space in the paper to promotions and had also failed to produce enough bona fide scoops.
“I was certainly critical of the breaking of news stories,” Hartigan told the court.
Yesterday, the court heard Hartigan was of the view that promotions for the AFL’s 150th anniversary DVD, also in 2008, was underplayed, despite it being Guthrie’s brainchild.
The internal machinations of News Limited have been revealed during the case, a bonanza for media nerds anxious for a insight into Rupert Murdoch’s local bunker. News Limited top brass, including chief spinner Greg Baxter, have been close at hand at the court to supervise Hartigan’s evidence.
Murdoch’s Australian chief also poured cold water on the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association awards, heavily promoted in News Limited titles, saying they were not major awards. The Herald Sun under Guthrie won a number of the gongs, including the 2008 Newspaper of the Year title, spruiking the victories vigorously in the paper.
Yesterday afternoon the court was regaled with intimate details of Hartigan’s office, which apparently included a freshly replenished rack of every News Limited title in the country and dedicated phone lines to each editor including, at the time, Guthrie.
Observers say the only reason why News Limited would risk a public humiliation of its Australian chief in open court was the presence of a smoking gun guaranteed to floor its former editor in the unfair dismissal trial. That knockout blow could come tomorrow, when Guthrie’s predecessor, Herald and Weekly Times chief executive Peter Blunden, is expected to appear in the witness box. Hartigan says tension between the two forced his hand in sacking him.
Julian Clarke — the former HWT chief, whose looming departure led to Guthrie replacing Blunden as editor-in-chief — is also scheduled to appear.
Hartigan rejected suggestions today that Blunden was volatile, saying instead he uses his hands as part of his language. “He expresses energy in everything he does,” he said.
Under cross examination, Hartigan again was forced to recount tension between Blunden and Guthrie in the year leading up to his dismissal, angrily refuting O’Bryan’s suggestion that he had made up a sequence of events surrounding the awarding of Guthrie’s three-year contract — unusual in News circles.
Hartigan had said Guthrie wanted the extended contract so he could dangle it in front of his wife, but he couldn’t recall the date of the exact meeting he had previously claimed had occurred in February 2007, soon after Guthrie’s hiring.
Hartigan said he didn’t disagree that the meeting could have, in fact, occurred in December of the previous year. But he maintained he had conveyed to Guthrie that Blunden was unhappy with his performance on many occasions, a fact disputed by Guthrie.
Amazingly, Hartigan said yesterday that one of the reasons he green-lit Guthrie’s appointment, after Blunden emailed him a list of names, was because he thought the former Fairfax editor could revamp the paper to be more “intelligent” in order to compete with The Age.
“I was a fan [of Guthrie]”, Hartigan admitted. “My view was its opinion and editorial pages weren’t intelligent enough and there was greater opportunity to be competitive with The Age in that regard.”
Another theory proffered was the intervention of a mysterious third party in Guthrie’s sacking, widely believed to be Rupert Murdoch’s sister and former News chairwoman Janet Calvert-Jones, who was angry over a 2008 front page exposing Christine Nixon for travelling to Los Angeles on an all-expenses-paid junket provided by Qantas under the headline “Beverly Hills cop”.
If that theory is true, it may have been then 3AW freelancer Daniel Ziffer that put the wheels in motion. On the day before the Herald Sun front page appeared, Ziffer, stationed in the Sofitel LA in West Hollywood, noticed Nixon in attendance with her husband, former Qantas executive John Becquet. He phoned in the yarn the next day to Neil Mitchell standing on the balcony of the Getty Center, the famous gallery and museum that towers over the Californian coastline. By the time Nixon was on the monorail back to the car park, she was in frantic conversations with her media advisers.