The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell has threatened to take legal action against the ABC to kill a column penned by Robert Manne and republished on commentary site The Drum.

Mitchell informed Crikey yesterday he is also looking at slapping Monthly proprietor Morry Schwartz — the publisher of the website on which the Manne post first appeared — with a strongly worded legal letter.

The post was strongly critical of Mitchell and an Australian reporter, Ean Higgins. Manne revealed Higgins had contacted him last week seeking his response to a Freedom of Information request looking into two Australian Research Council grants won by the La Trobe public thinker to investigate Aboriginal welfare and asylum seekers.

The Higgins story is yet to appear — Manne’s intervention seems to have been a pre-emptive strike.

“It’s an extraordinarily defamatory piece and it’s in response to not a word being published,” Mitchell said. “Nothing’s been written by me or Ean Higgins.

“He’s got me Goebbels-like directing something deep, dark and sinister … he’s trying to de-construct me.”

Crikey understands the ABC was contacted on Tuesday by News Limited in-house counsel Jane Summerhayes demanding the post be pulled. A follow-up letter is believed to be on its way. As of this morning, the piece remains on both the ABC and Monthly websites.

In his piece, Manne called on “democrats in Australia to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Murdoch press in general and in particular to the bullying tactics of its most important general staff — Chris Mitchell’s editorial team at The Australian“.

He remains forthright, telling Crikey: “… for the past few years The Australian has a freedom-of-speech campaign and threats of defamation are probably the most effective means of thwarting free speech.

“It seems hypocritical to me, especially in a piece where there is no defamation and which has been legalled. This is the most important way free speech is chilled when powerful corporations threaten suits.”

Manne said he was phoned last Thursday and it was “made clear” the story was likely to run in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian but that Higgins became waylaid with another story and then asked for further information on revenue earned from the grant. He said he was now under the impression the write-up was likely to appear in this Saturday’s paper.

“I didn’t wish to wait for accusations from The Australian,” Manne said.

Mitchell explained his position at length to Crikey, revealing that he had engaged lawyers “just to get the story pulled down from the website”.

“In the way of journalism, this was a tip from another academic who rang in January while I was 300 miles away on holidays suggesting to [Weekend Australian editor] Nick Cater that we might care to look at whether the grant obligations had been fulfilled,” he said.

“As you know it’s perfectly reasonable in a newsroom of 300 people for people to explore tips and nothing will come of it. Robert has attributed to me and to Higgins a whole series of motives and dark thoughts, none of which I’m even aware of. I didn’t even know Higgins was chasing it, it was nothing to do with me.

“Robert may not be able to understand but I have other to things to worry about than Robert Manne. He may have time in his life to fixate on one thing, good on him, but all that Robert has succeeded in doing is publishing a whole series of allegations against himself which probably might not have ever made it into print because there might be nothing in it.

“This is how self-regarding Robert his. He could have looked at the front page of The Australian any day in the last week and seen that Ean Higgins was otherwise engaged with a serious news story that resulted in the [NSW] Premier’s communications director having to be stood aside. Which is somewhat higher up the pecking order in terms of news sense for Ean than some story about a five-year-old ARC grant that might have turned up as a brief in the higher education section.

“It’s a fishing expedition based on a tip from another academic. It’s got nothing to do with us.

“If Robert really was a journalist as he claims to be in his piece he would know these things happen and don’t come to fruition thousands of times a month in any given newsroom. It’s very odd that you find yourself in a position that you have to argue for a piece to be taken down when that piece is in response to nothing that’s ever happened. It’s very odd.”

As detailed in Crikey yesterday, Manne also wrote that he understood The Australian had FoI’d a grant partly used by David McKnight to produce a book, Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power. However, Mitchell told Crikey that suggestion was “absolutely false”. (McKnight has since clarified this on The Monthly website).

This is not the first time Mitchell has personally pursued a defamation case. In 2010 he threatened to sue Canberra University lecturer Julie Posetti over a tweeted account of an academic conference. However, a writ was never issued and the one-year time limit to take formal action was left to expire.

ABC Drum editor Jonathan Green initially declined to comment on the fracas but early this afternoon issued the following statement: “the ABC has received no indication in any form, verbal or written, re The Australian‘s intention to launch legal action.”

UPDATE 1: Read responses from UTS journalism professor Wendy Bacon, Julie Posetti and an additional response from Robert Manne in the comment thread below.

UPDATE 2: After this article was republished in Crikey’s Thursday email edition, Crikey learned that Chris Mitchell had sent formal letters to the ABC and The Monthly asking that the Manne article be removed.

UPDATE 3: A previous version of this article could have been read as implying that formal legal proceedings had already been launched in a court of law. This was not the case as at 5pm on Thursday. The article has been amended.

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Peter Fray
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