It’s looking very much as if News Limited may have overplayed its hand in the fight it has picked with the government over media regulation. Indeed, there are signs the Holt Street heavies are now being taught a subtle lesson that the corporate sword of “government relations” pressure can cut both ways.

The Murdoch battalions fired their first salvo last month with a letter to the Prime Minister signed by News CEO Kim Williams and six other media executives (three of whom head companies owned, or partially owned, by News). The letter robustly protested any form of statutory content regulation for the print media.

Message: the PM and Communications Minister should pull their heads in pronto unless they want to get even more of a shellacking than they already receive from News Limited papers and like-minded media outlets.

Fair enough. The lofty joint letter has long been a legitimate lobbying tactic used by interest groups of all persuasions to grab some public attention and remind the government that major policy changes may have unwanted political consequences.

When the ring-master of such a campaign also occupies the most powerful chair in the Australian media the arguments carry undeniable force, if not logic. But, as we noted at the time, the great weakness in this News-led stand is that it is far from united. Fairfax and Network Ten didn’t sign up, signalling their doubts that direct confrontation with Julia Gillard and Stephen Conroy is the most effective tactic.

Undeterred, News has used its op-ed space and letters pages to keep hammering away at the government. This campaign reached a laughable nadir on Monday when The Australian ran a long opinion piece by former ABC director and chair Maurice Newman, who thundered about complacency, boiling frogs and threats to free speech. (This is the same free speech-loving Newman who championed a strict confidentiality “protocol” he required all ABC directors to sign and abide by, on pain of injunction. And the cultural warriors at The Oz showed just how out of touch they are by describing Newman as “the former chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission”. The ABC has, of course, been a corporation, not a commission, since 1983.)

Then, just when the News-led “we have written you a letter” campaign began running out of puff, the Prime Minister replied to Snow Williams and his Six Dwarfs — as convention, good manners and propriety demanded she must. We can’t know in precisely what terms Gillard responded because her letter was undoubtedly headed “confidential” and/or “not for publication”.

But that didn’t stop News Limited. It was determined to claim a victory. On Tuesday The Oz made the PM’s courtesy letter their “exclusive” front-page lead, under the preposterous headline: “PM seeks truce over media rules”. There was not a single quote in the story to substantiate that heading — in fact, not a quote of any kind from the letter. Nevertheless, its use of the word “truce” stood as an unguarded admission by News that it has, indeed, been waging a war on the government over media regulation.

The one kernel of apparent substance in the story was that the Prime Minister’s letter suggested that if the signatories had any concrete proposals for strengthening print media content standards through self-regulation then the government was happy to consider them. In other words, the classic “show us good cause why not/put up or shut up/what’s your credible alternative?” response that prudent politicians always offer their opponents when mooted reforms are challenged.

It’s a neat and entirely proper position for Gillard to adopt in a formal acknowledgment letter. She commits to nothing, yet sends a significant message.

The PM is reminding News and its camp followers that simply opposing any form of government-backed media regulation on absolutist “free speech” terms is not good enough. By implication, she’s saying that if the media companies can’t propose a genuinely effective system of accountability, then the government will.

The secondary message is that the government was not convinced by the hurried “beefing up” of the Australian Press Council by the proprietors in response to Finkelstein and the Convergence Review. More likely, the rushed expansion and rule changes were seen as confirmation that the APC has, up to now, been a dud.

For the self-appointed agenda setters at News to spin all this as some form of concession or peace offering from Gillard is disingenuous — or naive. The hard politics are that she has made no concessions, while appearing calm and reasonable — which makes Williams and his co-signatories look like hysterical doom merchants who mainly deal in threats and rhetoric.

This saga still has a long way to go, and may well not go anywhere given Labor’s precarious majority and the proximity of the next federal election. But by playing a deft bureaucratic dead bat, Gillard has shown it’s possible to counter News Limited’s bullying without having to trade fisticuffs in their confected stoush.

Fairfax has clearly sensed that the campaign they declined to join is now faltering. Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald ran a modest report under the heading “Media’s response to PM may be divided”, quoting an executive of one of the non-News signatory companies saying it might be more fruitful if media companies continued these discussions with the government individually, and in private. They’re telling Williams: back off, we won’t just do and say what News tells us.

Meanwhile, as the Holt Street strategists consider their next move, The Oz has been reduced to publishing simple-minded letters to the editor about “Kremlin-style” proposals and “threats to our democratic society”. Not the kind of stuff that sways too many opinions in cabinet.