Journos’ union the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance is alleging collusion between Australia’s two leading newspaper proprietors after an advertisement spruiking a rally in defence of striking Fairfax hacks was pulled from top-selling Melbourne tabloid the Herald Sun in the shadow of its deadline last night.

The innocuous ad, entitled ‘Rally to Protect Your Community Voice’ and booked on Monday at a cost of $4600, was set to appear in the newspaper’s heavily-read general news section this morning, but was spiked following a mysterious intervention from senior Herald Sun “legal and editorial” figures at 4:51pm, according to News Limited’s internal tracking system.

The bottom page strip drew attention to a rally tomorrow outside The Age‘s Media House to protest the company’s below-inflation pay offer for bludgeoned Fairfax Community Network scribes charged with producing up to 10 stories each week.

3-11-2010 12-04-52 PM

The union also attempted to place the ad in The Age, long regarded as a champion of free speech, but that was rejected by Fairfax “management” on Monday, according to an email sent by Dayle Veitch, The Age‘s Group Advertising Production Support Manager to union communications firm EMC. Veitch said the ad had been “cancelled and removed from our system.”

After the rejection, the union attached a “rejected by The Age” stamp to the Herald Sun ad in the tradition of Channel Nine’s famous ‘Made in Melbourne’ watermark, but that was removed from the final image submitted to News, to avoid the words “The Age” appearing in the pages of its bitter rival.

MEAA state secretary Louise Connor told Crikey this morning she was dumbfounded as to why the ad was dumped. “I hope there hasn’t been collusion between The Age and the Herald Sun,” Connor said. “While we half-expected The Age management to refuse to run the ad — even though they champion free speech — we certainly didn’t expect the Herald Sun management to take sides.”

She added that Southbank deepthroats had told her the ad may have been rejected because it contained the offensive term “fat cats”.

If so, the Herald Sun could be easily accused of applying its rubric inconsistently. Today’s cartoon by Walkley Award-winning cartoonist Mark Knight depicts a fat cat banker leading a fictional Melbourne Cup runner — “Interest Rate Rise” — back through the winner’s enclosure at Flemington. And a Google search for the terms “Herald Sun” and “fat cat” shows a tranche of recent stories with the phrase in its headline, including “$150,000 fat cats travel bill” on September 3, “Fat cats travel in 5-star style” on September 22, an editorial, “Fat cats in pay splurge” on September 29 and “Fat cats rake in millions” on October 24.

According to Connor, the alternative idea that an editorial intervention stopped the ad could pose serious problems for the newspaper if the logic was applied in reverse: “If editorial can interfere in advertising is this a two-way street?”

The Fairfax community papers, recently rebranded “The Weekly Group” and comprising 35 suburban mastheads, have between forced to emphasise its local news gathering caché after former Fairfax sales director Antony Catalano laid waste to his old firm’s revenue streams by setting up premium competitor The Weekly Review.

Fairfax community journalists, charged with the task of securing fresh scoops, have been offered a pay increase of 2.25%, 2.5% and 2.75% over three years which the union says will see real wages go backwards. Tomorrow’s strike will increase pressure on management to come to the table, especially if Age and Australian Financial Review staff walk off in solidarity with their local comrades.

Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel is on leave and our queries were referred to Herald and Weekly Times editor-in-chief Phil Gardner, who did not respond before deadline. Age CEO Don Churchill did not return Crikey‘s calls.