The Herald and Weekly Times issued threats to withdraw funding to the Melbourne Press Club if it went ahead with a proposal to launch Bruce Guthrie’s best-selling book Man Bites Murdoch, according to the distinguished former editor of the Herald Sun.

In an aside towards the end of a speech on the future of newspapers at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre yesterday, Guthrie revealed the Club, which hosts the annual Quill Awards and receives $20,000 in annual sponsorship from News Limited, was strong-armed after Murdoch-aligned committee members arced up.

The revelation came at the end of a stanza reflecting on the treatment meted out by News to Cate Blanchett over her participation in recent TV ads spruiking the need to put a price on carbon:

“Entrepreneur Dick Smith admitted recently he’d foregone the opportunity to participate in a series of commercials backing the push to cut carbon pollution because he was frightened of how Murdoch’s papers would portray him,” Guthrie said.

“He pointed to the treatment of actress Cate Blanchett who did step up — and was mauled by the News Limited press. I know how that feels. But of the many themes I explore in Man Bites Murdoch, clearly one of them is the need to confront bullies.”

He went on:

“It’s not just individuals who are intimidated. The Melbourne Press Club hasn’t touched the book, which is odd given that it’s a recent history of the Melbourne press written by someone who’s edited both Melbourne dailies. I’ve been told it’s because the HWT threatened to withdraw its funding for the club if they gave it any oxygen…so much for standing up to bullies.”

The Herald & Weekly Times is a “major media sponsor” of the MPC, tipping in $10,000 a year while News’ suburban Leader operation contributes a further $10,000.

Crikey understands that an MPC-auspiced Guthrie launch was floated by president Michael Venus, but that after the proposal was tabled, the Herald & Weekly Times’ representative, Genevieve Brammall, expressed her private concerns that it would be unacceptable to promote the views of someone who had sued a major sponsor.

Brammall, corporate communications director at HWT, confirmed that sequence of events when quizzed by Crikey this morning:

“After the meeting…I gave it some more thought personally and called the president and said ‘if someone had sued another sponsor, like Monash or Siemens or Crown, what would the club’s position be?'” she said. “It was very much the view of the committee that we would do anything to protect any of our sponsors and we would not do anything to jeopardise any sponsorship.”

A bullish Brammall denied HWT had overtly threatened to withdraw funding, telling Crikey she was simply “questioning what the situation would be” if someone seeking support from the Press Club had sued a different sponsor.

“This man had sued our company,” she said. “In our opinion we would not want to be doing anything that publicises a book written by someone like that.”

She rejected a suggestion the book was worthy of a full and frank discussion under the Club’s banner, despite its focus on 40 years of Melbourne media history:

“The book’s not about the Melbourne media. It’s about one man’s deluded version of his tenure at News Limited.”

After an extended back and forth, the book, which detailed Guthrie’s court battle against News for unfair dismissal, was launched by Melbourne University Publishing at Bottega in Bourke Street. But Crikey understands the 19-member committee remains fiercely divided.

MPC Treasurer David Poulton said this morning “as far as we’re aware” there were no overt threats from sponsors in relation to holding or not holding any particular events, “including Bruce Guthrie’s.”

“There were discussions about the possibility of what Bruce doing something for a Press Club-type event…It did become evident the book had some divisive elements in it. It needs to be understood the Press Club is not an activist organisation. It’s a friendly social forum and our primary aim is to celebrate excellence and emphasise the positives.”

“We depend on support from sponsors than enable us to put on events like the Quills.You cannot survive without sponsors. Without being limp-wristed, we’re not really there to rock boats,” he said.

The Press Club will host annual general meeting next Wednesday. The position of president is open following Michael Venus’ move to the Middle East to become a spinner for Etihad Airways.

At this point, potential candidates are yet to come forward.