The Australian newspaper has come under sustained attack from several angles as its simmering spat with the nation’s academic community threatens to turn nuclear.

La Trobe University academic Robert Manne — a consistent News Limited critic — launched into the paper this morning, its editor Chris Mitchell and his journalists over a saga that began last week with a front-page story on Melbourne University journalism lecturer Margaret Simons.

In a 2500-word exposition, Manne said The Oz has launched a deliberate character assassination of Simons as payback for her coverage in Crikey of the dispute between the paper and the Victorian Office of Police Integrity.

Meanwhile, it’s understood that advisers to University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis have prepared a draft blog post attacking the campaign against Simons saying the newspaper represented a dire threat to academic freedom. It was set to be uploaded to the University of Melbourne’s website later today (see update below).

And Crikey has also been told of a possible joint Group of 8 response to the latest outbreak, that may condemn the campaign against what it regards as interfering with its institutions’ liberties. Last year, the Group of 8 withdrew $350,000 in funding from Australian insert The Australian Literary Review.

Simons was featured prominently in several editions of the national broadsheet last week, prompted by a Freedom of Information request that showed she had recommended fellow academics to work on the Finkelstein review into the future of the media to which she herself gave evidence.

The journalist who wrote the first page one yarn, former Crikey political correspondent Christian Kerr, said Simons had “brokered key advice for the government’s independent media inquiry” but had failed to disclose this contact in her submission to the inquiry.

The Oz followed that up with bevy of news stories, Cut & Paste columns, features and editorials from media reporter Nick Leys and former Liberal staffers Peter van Onselen, Chris Kenny and Kerr that Manne tallied at 6000 words.

“The consequence of exercises like this is not only to try to harm its immediate target, on the solid principle that mud does indeed stick. It also helps demonstrate to other potential critics the kind of price they can expect to pay. In general, intimidation works,” Manne wrote.

Australian editor Chris Mitchell hit back hard this morning, telling Crikey he had “not read” the post and did “not intend to”. But after being sent the link in question, he responded with the following:

“The problem for Robert Manne, Meg and Crikey is that EVERYTHING Meg wrote on your website about Operation Neath, Operation Briars, Cameron Stewart and Hedley Thomas is wrong, as will become clear soon enough. Her only source was an OPI spin doctor.

“Our reporting will be completely vindicated and both Hedley and Cameron will be requiring some pretty serious apologies. Surely you all read The Age and the Herald Sun down there and have seen the rapidly increasing scrutiny of OPI’s dirty tricks by both papers.”

Rumours of a smoking gun around the setting up of the OPI and its subsequent investigations have been floating around the Herald & Weekly Times’ Southbank offices for months. There is believed to be one big major splash in the offing that may turn the saga on its head.

Mitchell and The Australian have campaigned hard on the OPI in Victoria after former Police chief Simon Overland spoke out over a front-page exclusive penned by Stewart in 2009 documenting the Operation Neath terror raids on the morning they occurred. Overland believed the story was irresponsible because hard copies of the paper were available before it occurred.

An extended back-and-forth ensued between the OPI and criminal proceedings in the Magistrates Court that could result in serious jail time for a member of Victoria Police’s Africa unit Simon Artz. Simons covered the case and wrote a number of opinion pieces critical of the Australian’s motives and Thomas’ “siccing” onto the story.

Other Finkelstein academics have also been fingered by the paper. In this morning’s edition, enquiry adviser Matthew Ricketson’s dinkus was featured above the fold as a pointer to a yarn that revealed he had been paid $175,000 for his work on the enquiry.

Ricketson’s Vice Chancellor at the University of Canberra, Stephen Parker, has been a staunch defender of his charge, blogging in March that the attacks on Ricketson were an assault on academic freedom. He is also believed to be outraged by The Oz‘s blow-up of recent days.

UPDATE: Glyn Davis posted his critique of The Australian this afternoon as foreshadowed in the story above. He accuses the paper of using a “tenuous and trivial claim to attack an academic critic” and wonders “about the fairness of the coverage or the pattern of personal attacks on those who express views unacceptable to editorial writers.”