Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kaye has issued a stinging ruling in former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie’s landmark unfair dismissal case against News Limited, awarding Guthrie $580,808 plus costs that could send his total payout to over $1 million and slamming the News Ltd witnesses’ testimony in the process.

At a judgement issued early this afternoon, and delayed by Kaye’s attendance at QC Peter Galbally’s funeral this morning, the veteran judge found that Guthrie was entitled to loss and damages for his sacking in November 2008 at the hands of News Limited supremo John Hartigan:

“I am satisfied that, as a result of the breach by the defendant of the contract of employment…the plaintiff suffered loss and damage, consisting of the termination payment to which he would have been entitled under clause 22.4 of the contract.”

The section related to severance payments due to be paid to Guthrie if his three year contract was terminated early:

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Another claim relating to loss of opportunity to negotiate a new contract, said to be worth $2.7 million, was dismissed by Justice Kaye.

In a wide-ranging 91-page judgement, Kaye rejected Herald and Weekly Times chief Peter Blunden’s version of events relating to an exchange between Blunden and Guthrie, one month before he was sacked, over the now infamous Beverly Hills Cop front page that Blunden said had drawn the ire of former News Chairwoman Janet Calvert-Jones and former police chief Christine Nixon.

“Overall, he [Blunden] did not present as a witness that was confident in his testimony,” Justice Kaye wrote. In a further rebuke, Kaye said Blunden’s evidence “does not survive scrutiny” and that he preferred the account of Guthrie.

On Hartigan’s testimony, that was slammed in court by Guthrie’s counsel Norman O’Bryan SC, Kaye said that he “had reservations about a number of features” of his evidence.

“In the course of cross-examination, it became apparent that Mr Hartigan attempted to give the impression of having a better memory of the events, about which he gave evidence, that was the fact.”

Hartigan’s recollection of the negotiation of Guthrie’s contract, which the News chief had claimed were “long, protracted and hard-driven”, were dismissed.

“In my view Hartigan was an unreliable witness in respect of the negotiations that proceeded the formation of the contract.”

On evidence given by Hartigan on an apparent lack of front-page promotion allocated to a 2008 preliminary final between Hawthorn and St Kilda, which had, in fact, appeared prominently, Kaye was similarly scathing:

“That error…not only revealed a clear error in his memory, but, more importantly, an evident lack of care exercised by him in giving his evidence before me.”

But Justice Kaye reserved his most savage judgement for the role played by Blunden in Guthrie’s dismissal:

“It became evident that Mr Blunden’s memory and recounting of the events, which occurred during and immediately after Mr Guthrie’s editorship of the Herald Sun, was affected by the dispute which had arisen between the plaintiff and the defendent, and in particular by the central role which Mr Blunden had played in the decision to terminate Guthrie’s employment, which led to the dispute…

…It became evident that Mr Blunden, in his evidence, endeavoured to downplay the significant role which he had had in the termination of Mr Guthrie’s appointment as editor-in-chief of the Herald Sun.

“I also consider that the explanations given by Mr Blunden in evidence, for not revealing to Mr Guthrie, at the time, that he was advocating his removal as editor-in-chief of the Herald Sun, do not survive scrutiny.”

Weighing the conversations between Guthrie, Hartigan and Blunden, Kaye found that on most occasions Guthrie was the more credible witness.

A triumphant Guthrie, speaking exclusively with Crikey after the ruling was handed down, said he was “pleased by the decision.”

“I was disappointed that it came to this and had to be fought out in court, but I’m glad the record has been put straight.

“News may be a good company but they got it horribly wrong because they failed the first rule of journalism — they didn’t get both sides of the story.”

For six days finishing last Tuesday, the court was regaled with the inner workings of the Herald Sun that detailed Guthrie’s 21 month stint as editor before his eventual sacking in November 2008.

During the case, Hartigan was relentlessly pilloried by Guthrie’s counsel, Norman O’Bryan SC, for his “exaggerated, misremembered and obviously wrong evidence”, delivered under oath.

It is unknown whether the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions will follow up the strong imputations that both Blunden and Hartigan had concocted a large proportion of their evidence to the court.

Peter Fray

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