Threats by editor-in-chief of the Australian Chris Mitchell to sue journalism academic Julie Posetti are all bluff. Mitchell has for years been criticised for the newspaper’s coverage of climate change and the attacks appear to be getting to him.

Three years ago I and my publisher, Black Inc, were threatened with legal action by journalists at The Australian over what I had written about the paper in my book Scorcher. I had accused the newspaper under Mitchell’s editorship of running a virulently anti-greenhouse line, allowing the news pages to become a parody of dispassionate journalism, verballing scientists and attacking science in pursuit of a larger ideological battle.

Weeks before the book was due to be published, senior staff signalled that defamation action was being considered. As I wrote shortly afterwards, this struck me as bullying typical of the newspaper’s style. With a daily circulation of 130,000 and double that number on Saturdays, The Australian is in a strong a position to defend itself against any criticisms, and it is in a class of its own when it comes to bagging people it does not like.

The threats were also profoundly hypocritical. I emailed Mitchell to point out that as editor-in-chief he had for years campaigned vigorously against Australia’s defamation laws, with many editorials making a strong case against them for restricting free speech. I reproduced some words from editorials to remind him of his stance:

“Newspapers have become accustomed to being the victims of Australia’s ludicrous defamation laws, which act to suppress free speech and enrich lawyers … But now the defamation explosion is hitting the book publishing business hard … Book-burning through defamation means control of the historical record goes to the people with the deepest pockets and the smartest lawyers.” (Editorial, The Australian, January 31, 2004)

And again a few months later:

“The defamation law as it stands has done grave damage to public culture in Australia … The whole legalistic approach ignores a fundamental truth: freedom of speech and a vigorous and open marketplace of ideas are essential to a democratic society … In fact, reputation is something established in the marketplace of ideas…” (Editorial, The Australian, August 6,2004)

The paper had also observed that “the legal system’s notion of reputation as a form of private property that can be damaged or stolen is at odds with the idea of a free and robust marketplace of ideas and comment.” (Editorial, The Australian, October 21, 2004)

I wrote that there would be few organisations in this country in a better position than The Australian to participate in a free and robust marketplace of ideas and comment. Indeed, in another leader (May 19, 2005), Mitchell had written that “big companies have plenty of resources for protecting their reputations” without use of the defamation laws.

Mitchell responded quickly by email saying “Neither the paper nor I would ever sue”.

So what has changed to convince Mitchell that his reputation, if no one else’s, is a form of private property that can be damaged or stolen, that his actions should be outside the free and robust marketplace of ideas, and that book-burning is beyond the pale but Tweet-suppression is legitimate?

Posetti’s tweet reporting words allegedly used by former Australian science journalist Asa Wahlquist were no more critical than my allegations in Scorcher, so when did Mitchell become so fragile?

The Australian is feeling increasingly isolated by its stance on climate change. It hasn’t stopped writing defamatory articles about climate scientists, nor mimicking the IPA in attacks on all forms of renewable energy, but it has been working hard to publish voices from what it sees as “the other side” in order to give itself cover. These attempts are failing because no one trusts The Australian.

Although it won’t be any fun for Julie Posetti, I hope Mitchell does sue. I would expect the discovery process to uncover a gold mine of useful documents for the defence lawyers, and the affidavits from the bevy of honest journalists who have left the newspaper in disgust will make great reading. Then, of course, there will be the flood of leaks from journalists still employed by the paper. Mitchell will be putting himself on trial.