Oh to be a News Limited editor. At a time when Fairfax editors resemble crushed and belittled errand boys, rarely seen or heard, News Limited has maintained a company structure and ethos in which a carousel of editors — or at least those who manage to become “one of the boys” — are the true masters of the company.

Not all of them make it, of course. News Limited is poor at assimilating talented outsiders. To succeed, one has to wear the club jersey and sing the club song.

Bruce Guthrie, the man who last week humiliated News Limited and its most senior executives by winning his unfair dismissal case in the Victorian Supreme Court, never became part of the tribe.

Meanwhile, his predecessor, Herald and Weekly Times managing director Peter Blunden, may have given up being an editor but remained the quintessential News Limited medicine man — so powerful that apparently even CEO John Hartigan moved at his urging.

So powerful that the Guthrie case was allowed to play out in the courts with disastrous results for News Limited, when better judgement would surely have resulted in a settlement.

Guthrie’s comment outside court last Friday that News Limited had failed to perform the basic journalistic task of getting both sides of the story was clearly aimed at CEO John Hartigan — the man who still gives his occupation as journalist.

The Guthrie case, together with other legal imbroglios and the Melbourne Storm scandal, raise questions about the urbane Hartigan’s management. And the ongoing attempt by The Australian to suppress a report critical of its conduct have damaged the company’s credibility and claim to moral high ground. Who within News Limited is exercising judgement?

The Guthrie case was not, as the Justice Stephen Kaye repeatedly asserted, about whether Guthrie was or was not a good editor.

A couple of weeks ago, when the case was in its early stages, I asked one of the several Herald Sun insiders who wished Guthrie ill, how he thought the case was going. He thought it was going well. It was true, he agreed, that News Limited was looking ruthless and nasty but “everyone knows how News Limited operates. That’s just News Limited. Now people know what Guthrie was like as well”.

Guthrie has bitter enemies. There were people inside the company who devoted a great deal of time to assembling evidence designed to blacken his character. He was vindicated mostly because the judge preferred his evidence about key interactions over that of Hartigan and Blunden. But it is also true that nobody’s reputation fared well.

The picture that emerged was of an unpleasant lot of junketeering, aggressive and arrogant men. How nasty they looked, trying to prove that each had been more unpleasant and abusive, more prepared to take freebies and junkets, more prepared to deceive readers, than the other.

The evidence had several “give me a break” moments. Such as when Hartigan, asked about Blunden’s sometimes erratic behaviour, said he had not seen that side of the man. That would make him rare indeed inside News Limited.

Another “give me a break” moment was when Blunden claimed disgust with Guthrie over a news story falsely boosting the Herald Sun’s circulation figures. The judge thought it to Guthrie’s discredit that he had run such a story, and who could disagree? But since when was this regarded internally as an offence? Very few Australian newspaper editors would be innocent of the crime.

As for the free trips, the corporate boxes, the giveaways, the self righteousness and the bully-boy tactics, the allegations of  “inappropriate gestures” and advertising staff bawled out. Well, the next time that News Limited editors whip up faux outrage at the social aberrations of others, the next time they seek the moral high ground with talk of the public interest, the only sensible response from the public will be, once again, “give me a break”.

Meanwhile, what has happened to the Herald Sun? The view from the newsroom floor is that while Guthrie might have had problems (one of the reasons for Blunden’s dissatisfaction with Guthrie was said to be that the newsroom had low morale) things are worse now.

Stories get pushed, and pushed, beyond the point where even gung ho reporters feel comfortable. Political coverage, which the paper once did sharply and well, is almost entirely absent.

For some time the company has not taken cadets, instead hiring editorial assistants and using them to write scads of copy, yet never offering them a guarantee of a future. True, this will be addressed by the recently announced trainee scheme run in conjunction with Leader Newspapers and the Geelong Advertiser, but this is not before time.

A small coterie of senior journalists still do stunningly good work, but as for the mass of reporters, one measure of discontent is that the newsroom now leaks frequently, whereas once company loyalty meant that even unhappy staff rarely spoke to outsiders.

It is a rare week now in which someone from inside the Southbank citadel isn’t on the phone to Crikey.

The real import of the Guthrie case is what it says about the management of Australia’s largest newspaper company, and the exercise of judgement at the top.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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