News Limited global chief Rupert Murdoch could be sharpening the knives for a shake-up of his Australian operations during his annual trip to Australian later this month, former Herald Sun editor-in-chief Bruce Guthrie has told Crikey.

Guthrie — who was given his marching orders just days after Murdoch visited Melbourne in October 2008 — says a triptych of shameful episodes have sent shock waves through the organisation and riled the septuagenarian mogul who has watched the carnage unfold from New York.

Guthrie’s tell-all book Man Bites Murdoch, which hits bookshops tomorrow, details a process-free sickness at the heart of the organisation, which has been inflamed by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the Melbourne Storm salary cap debacle and the dressing down of Australian CEO John Hartigan and CEO-hopeful Peter Blunden during Guthrie’s unfair dismissal trial.

“There is no process, it’s a company that’s only interested in outcomes,” Guthrie told Crikey.

“I think they have got a cultural problem at News Limited, and it needs to be addressed, it’s so outcome-focused that sometimes they forget processes. I think I’m an example of that and I think the Melbourne Storm is an example of that and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal is an example and ultimately the buck stops with Rupert and when he comes here later this month as he usually does.”

In his book, Guthrie takes aim at News’ ad hoc approach to internal management, that while it can be “exhilarating” it often gives the impression of an empty silo at the whims of individuals, the most powerful of whom is Murdoch.

Murdoch appeared to have exerted a spectral presence in Guthrie’s sacking, with the decision — delivered by  Hartigan — coming less than two weeks after the mogul’s annual visit. After fronting Crikey’s Stephen Mayne at the company’s AGM this Friday in New York, Murdoch will travel home for the annual in-house News Awards but will avoid local shareholders in Adelaide.

Guthrie says Murdoch would have been watching closely as Justice Stephen Kaye delivered a savage dressing down of Hartigan, Blunden and former Herald and Weekly Times chairman Julian Clarke at Guthrie’s unfair dismissal case in May. In a stinging character assessment, Kaye branded Hartigan an “unreliable witness” and said Blunden’s recollections of his relationship with Guthrie “did not survive scrutiny”.

The personnel shake-up could also lead to a re-examination of News’ blokey culture, epitomised, according to Guthrie, by former Gold Coast Bulletin managing director Rocky Miller. Miller, at a News talk fest in Cancun in 2004, introduced his boss in a wobbly fashion, only to pause and say “just before you come up here, Rupert, I want to say one thing though: you’re my f-cking hero.”

While the Australian arm of News tittered in reply, the Americans closest to Murdoch appeared to want Miller summarily executed.

News, Guthrie says, is still dominated by “Murdoch robots, programmed to consider him first and the issue second”.

Guthrie told ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly this morning that working life inside the company can be intimidating to those not versed in its strictures: “When you come into it from outside, at best it’s like a small-town mentality … and at worst it’s almost like a secret society, if you’re not part of the family, it’s very hard to break in.”

Guthrie said overt diktats from Murdoch himself were rarely necessary, given the pernicious culture of self-censorship that permeates the organisation:

“What I’m saying … is that long-serving Murdoch men … their first thought is what will Rupert think of this, whether it’s a story, whether it’s a decision to launch a new section … whether it’s a leader on election eve … it’s almost instinctive second-guessing the boss and it flows from there, so you second-guess Rupert and you second-guess John Hartigan and you second-guess the corporate partners … and once you’ve cleared all those hurdles, you go for the story.”

This morning Guthrie recorded an interview with Kerry O’Brien for The 7:30 Report in which he is understood to have repeated calls for a shake-up at News, of which the most logical start would be when Murdoch touches down in two weeks.

Peter Fray

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