Lyall Johnson had only been working for the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, for a few days when he was directed to escalate the war between the government and The Australian.

As the minister’s press secretary, Johnson’s job is to respond directly to queries by journalists. But on May 24 he was told to break with tradition by putting his response to a journalist’s questions into a general press release and distributing it to the entire press gallery.

There was no mystery as to why every hack in the gallery was gifted the story, the answer was pretty obvious. The reporter was from The Australian and Conroy was fed up: the Minister’s office believed the paper’s coverage of the National Broadband Network was consistently misleading and this was their shot across the bow.

Two days later, another reporter from The Australian received the same treatment from Conroy’s office.

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Crikey understands that Johnson then received a tip off — he was told that the paper wanted a photo of him — and that the photographer would track him down over the weekend to take one. The photographer was willing to stake out Johnson until the paper had its picture — effectively, to paparazzi or “papp” the press secretary.

The practice of staking out and taking the picture of an unwilling or unsuspecting subject is normally reserved for shonks or unco-operative celebrities, certainly not government functionaries.

The photographer snapped Johnson at a public event the following Monday. The picture was never published. Just what The Australian was trying to achieve by this tactic is unclear. But for observers of the national broadsheet, this behaviour was not entirely out of character.

Mitchell told Crikey today that Senator Conroy has now “abandoned the practice of releasing our questions” and that “relations between Senator Conroy and our Canberra bureau are cordial again.” However sources have told Crikey that Conroy has reserved the right to continue releasing questions from The Australian if he believes that the paper is pursuing a story that isn’t “legitimate.”

If it is war between the national broadsheet and the federal government, then the general leading the newspaper’s campaign must be Chris Mitchell. As editor-in-chief since 2003, Mitchell has used The Australian like a weapon to fight what often appears to be personal battles on a great many fronts.

He is sometimes described as a crusader editor because of the zeal with which he fights for causes.

Last week in a June 16 editorial entitled “Fairfax shows how not to run a serious newspaper“, The Oz took a swipe at its competitors:

“The decline in relevance of these papers is directly related to their surrender to advocacy journalism. They no longer attempt to appeal to the broad population of the cities they serve but increasingly reflect the narrow interests of those who would shut down any argument that does not accord with their prejudices. To their journalists and editors, life is a battle between right thinkers and wrong thinkers in which they, naturally, are on the side of the angels.”

In response, critics of The Australian might be tempted to use words like pot, kettle and black. But then the editorial continues:

“A newspaper which aspires to play a constructive role in civic society cannot afford such conceit, or such contempt for its readers. Its pages should be a clearing house for ideas that stimulate rather than suppress debate and play a part in the development of sound public policy. The vast majority of Australians have open minds and are willing to change them when presented with new evidence or fresh information.”

And therein lies the tension at the heart of Mitchell’s stewardship of The Oz.

I worked at The Australian from 1999 to 2004, and saw the transition from David Armstrong to Chris Mitchell in 2003. My experience mirrors most journalists who’ve worked at The Oz in that I did not work with Mitchell one on one, especially as I worked in Melbourne. However, even in the Melbourne bureau, Mitchell’s presence was pervasive. When the phone rang from Sydney, it was often to convey an idea and a story angle that had originated with him.

Reporters at The Oz know that Mitchell fights for ideological territory, ranging from climate change, the culture wars, the future of education and the NBN to the supposed bias of the ABC and Fairfax. On every second page of the only national broadsheet it seems there’s another long-running grudge being played out in the editorial copy. Many stories require careful reading to discern the paper’s vested interests from the actual news content.

But The Australian is also home to plenty of fine reporting. This too reflects Mitchell’s leadership. He is credited with those important journalistic qualities of tenacity, toughness and the ability to hunt down a damn good story. As a former reporter, he understands the craft of journalism and backs his reporters.

David Salter, the editor of The Week, says the direction of The Australian inevitably reflects the character of the person at the top: “So much of the paper is really good but parts of it are rabid. It reads as vaguely bi-polar.”

Mark Latham wrote in The Australian Financial Review in December last year, “Some have labelled the newspaper’s approach as ideological. It is, in fact, egotistical.”

Mitchell says this suggestion is “…ironical at the end of a series of inquiries asking me to reflect on my paper, and coming after a long investigation by Crikey and forthcoming pieces by Rob Manne (in the Quarterly Essay) and Sally Neighbour (in The Monthly). I believe there is a lot of focus on The Australian at the moment because supporters of the new paradigm government are distressed by the government’s problems. But those problems are internal.”

One insider describes Mitchell’s behaviour as a “magnificent obsession”. They say Mitchell has a preoccupation with his own legacy and with the legacy he is creating as editor-in-chief.

When it comes to protecting his own reputation, Mitchell works the phones assiduously, responding with lightning speed as if he doesn’t have another job. He takes a deep interest in what is being written about him.

Salter jokes about Mitchell: “You need to do two things to survive as an editor of a News Limited newspaper. You need to make money and you need to heed the master’s voice. Mitchell does one of those things.”

Some accuse Mitchell of hiding behind other journalists’ bylines, and the anonymity of the editorial, to push his agendas. Others say that he is reluctant to publicly defend his paper’s increasingly strident positions. Crikey knows of at least three major venues that have offered Mitchell a platform to express and defend his views, only for him to decline.

Any casual reader would agree that The Australian is a campaigning paper. Insiders will tell you that they are occasionally encouraged to chase things in ways that align to the paper’s various battles and that the paper is often not a disinterested player.

To a degree, all journalists are emissaries of their editors, but there’s something almost tribal or sect-like about the way it’s done at The Oz.

For example, a selection of journalists from The Oz were employed to cover the now infamous squabble between Mitchell and Canberra University academic Julie Posetti.

Posetti  is facing a defamation writ from Mitchell after she tweeted the comments of a former Australian journalist at a conference in Sydney last November. Posetti believes she has a strong case because she faithfully reported Asa Wahlquist’s assertions that writing about climate change at The Australian was “torture”.

Mitchell had taken offence at the suggestion in Posetti’s tweets that he had directed Wahlquist’s coverage on climate change. He expressed his concerns both in a legal letter to her and the subsequent stories on the issue in his own paper, under headlines such as The Australian‘s Chris Mitchell to sue Julie Posetti for defamation”, “Come and see for yourself how we work, Mitchell invites Posetti” and “Defamation case over Posetti posts ‘unremarkable’, lawyers say”.

The editor in chief told Crikey today “I have not decided what to do with the Posetti action”.

In the rolling Media Diary blog update “Twitter’s first defamation case” Mitchell made the point that he had not spoken to Wahlquist in several years. But as insiders will tell you, that this is not the way Mitchell works.

One ex-staffer told Crikey that it’s Mitchell’s senior colleagues and the section editors who commission the reporters, usually with a line such as “the editor wants a story on …” or “Chris wants us to take a look at …”

Seasoned reporters say it is possible to resist the ideas that they may feel uncomfortable about, but young reporters can be easily pressured into writing stories along the lines predetermined by the paper. Of course, this phenomenon isn’t unique to The Australian.

One person close to the paper told Crikey that when they see these kinds of editorially loaded stories appearing in the paper, they immediately feel for the person with the byline. Sometimes they  find themselves saying “Gee I hope that wasn’t your idea”.

They told Crikey that the paper has become even more strident in its attacks on Labor since Tony Abbott won the leadership. They says it’s as if they’ve now got someone to champion.

But at the same time, others reckon Mitchell might not be as effective at directing the troops to take on his fights because he recently lost his hard-nosed editor, Paul Whittaker, to the post of editor of The Daily Telegraph. In his place is the widely respected and eminently reasonable Clive Mathieson.

There is also consternation at News Limited’s Holt Street headquarters because Graham Erbacher, the paper’s long-term production guru, has left that role to head the News Limited’s “sub hub” — the centralised subediting office. Erbacher is known for his diplomatic skills and has been described as “the last repository of common sense, reasonableness and calmness. He handled the apologies and isn’t one of the mad company men”.

But the paper’s most magnificent obsession — itself — is perhaps best described by Mark Latham in his December AFR column:

“Newspapers are supposed to talk to their readers about interesting events. Too often The Australian talks to itself about itself. Barely an edition passes without the denigration of its imagined foes, defined as those who disagree with its editorial line and/or work for rival media companies — a broad catchment. Barely an edition passes without the invention of a new angle by which the paper can boast of its imagined magnificence.”

*Tomorrow — part 2: Bob Brown tallies up The Oz‘s coverage of the Greens, and employees’ high praise for the man who champions journalists