News Limited supremo John Hartigan has been accused of uttering deliberate untruths in the Victorian Supreme Court this morning, as the $2.7 million unfair dismissal case of former Herald Sun editor-in-chief Bruce Guthrie draws to a close.

In his final address to the court before Justice Stephen Kaye retires to issue a ruling on the case, Norman O’Bryan, SC, for Guthrie, lashed Rupert Murdoch’s local lieutenant for his “exaggerated, misremembered and obviously wrong evidence”, delivered under oath.

A specific dispute over whether Hartigan had adequately discussed with Guthrie the reasons for his termination before he finally made the call in November 2008 was endorsed by a seemingly sympathetic Justice Stephen Kaye:

“I would have thought Mr Hartigan should have disclosed with Guthrie that he has taken the momentous step of terminating his contract,” Kaye remarked.

O’Bryan accused Hartigan of a “gratuitous, unfair, unjustified attack” against his former employee in the court, which has been hearing evidence from both sides over the past week.

Hartigan’s journalistic credentials didn’t escape O’Bryan’s scrutiny either, who recounted evidence that the News boss had told the court that “any working journo worth his salt always gets both sides of the story”.

“He must have forgotten the basics of the job,” O’Bryan scoffed, when it came to investigating the reasons behind the dismissal.

On the sequence of events that led to Guthrie to sign a three-year deal with News, in January 2007, O’Bryan accused Hartigan of fabricating a story that he had discussed the contract with Guthrie at News’ Holt Street headquarters. This was impossible, O’Bryan said, because at the time Guthrie was holidaying in Mexico.

This recollection “was on the outer edge of truthfulness,” O’Bryan remarked.

Hartigan’s claims before the court last week that the inclusion of Collingwood on the front page of the Herald Sun had the potential to add 30,000 copies to its circulation, was also rubbished, with O’Bryan citing yesterday’s paper, that featured a photo of former swimmer Ian Thorpe, rather than Collingwood’s nine-goal victory over Carlton on Sunday before 84,000 fans at the MCG, as evidence that the paper’s current editors had failed to heed Hartigan’s advice.

“I can hear Mr Blunden from here,” said O’Bryan.

“You seem to be very enthusiastic about that,” Kaye responded, after O’Bryan admitted to the court that he was a Collingwood supporter.

Arguments proffered by News Limited in the case — that Guthrie had failed to adequately promote a National Geographic DVD, a children’s video game, and a visit by Princess Mary of Denmark’s were dismissed by O’Bryan as “generalised nonsense” that would struggle to be verified by the facts. Expert witnesses had not been called by News, Justice Kaye said, leaving him unable to make a solid judgement on whether the paper had suffered at Guthrie’s hands.

On the payout that Guthrie is eligible to take from News, O’Bryan revealed to the court yesterday that he had only received $844,523 from the company, and had yet to receive either severance pay or payment in lieu of notice. But, he argued, the centerpiece of the case, that Guthrie was eligible for “future compensation”, still remained.

News has claimed that Guthrie had “zero” chance of renegotiating his contract, while Guthrie maintains that he should have been able to proffer a similar position within News, and that Hartigan had even offered it to him when the two met to deliver what Hartigan allegedly said was a “sh-t sandwich”.

In earlier evidence this morning, O’Bryan told the court that the story that Guthrie says his former boss Peter Blunden told him was the part reason for his sacking — that Janet Calvert-Jones had personally intervened over a front-page attacking police chief Christine Nixon with the headline “Beverly Hills Cop” was “probably untrue” but that it was raised by Blunden to deliberately mislead the court.

Yesterday, Blunden was pilloried in the court by O’Bryan, who claimed the Herald and Weekly Times managing director had waged a deliberate campaign to “stick a knife” into his editor-in-chief, while pretending on the surface that relations were cordial. Guthrie maintains the relationship between the two was repaired following a meeting, just months before he was sacked, designed to bury the hatchet.

Kaye, who is usually quick in issuing judgments, is expected to report his findings to the warring parties before the end of the week.

Peter Fray

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