Australian Financial Review editorial bosses have launched a full-throated defence of the paper’s ability to hold big business to account in response to a scathing critique from Fairfax business journalist Paddy Manning.

Manning was told to clean out his desk on Monday after penning a piece for Crikey blasting the merger of Fairfax’s business units into one division and criticising The Fin for being too close to corporate Australia. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance is still negotiating with Fairfax management in a bid to have Manning reinstated.

In their email sent to staff yesterday — obtained by CrikeyAFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, editor Paul Bailey and deputy editor James Chessell hit back at “unfounded and frankly naive criticism” of the creation of one business media division at Fairfax. They write:

“[F]or the great bulk of us, it will be business as usual. The existing mastheads and brands will continue to concentrate on serving their respective audiences.”

The editors also reminded troops of recent stories that have exposed wrongdoing at the big end of town:

The Financial Review takes a starting position that business, competitive markets and individual enterprise are the fundamental drivers of a prosperous and good society. But this fundamental pre-condition necessarily also requires the accountability provided by the sort of vigorous and independent journalism pursued by all the mastheads under the Fairfax banner.

“Our tradition of independence and our hunger for news strengthens our credibility even though it brings us into robust discussions with many of those in the corporate world whom we write about, including in recent times Macquarie, NAB, Ten, Woolworths, Coles, QBE, Whitehaven, Fortescue, BHP Billiton, Mirvac and UBS. Financial Review stories prompted a Qantas director to resign last month, prompted the NSW government to appoint an independent panel to oversee Crown’s application for a new casino project in Sydney and did most to expose the regulatory gaps behind the Banksia failure.”

The editors go on to crow about blowing the whistle on Eddie Obeid, leading the coverage of Nathan Tinkler’s rise and fall and exposing the world of MONA founder David Walsh’s punters club.

In his article for Crikey on MondayManning wrote: 

The AFR‘s business journalism is built on a fundamental contract between company and reporter: high-level access in exchange for soft coverage. Too often — even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters’ liking — the result is PR-driven “churnalism” which shows up as ‘drops’ (the poor man’s exclusive, or as Verrender once wrote, the press release a day early), ‘herograms’ for business leaders, unreadable roundtables and conference-linked spreads featuring plenty of happy snaps of business leaders with a glass of champagne or mineral water in hand.”

Crikey has spoken to several journalists at Fairfax — some who believe Manning made some fair points and others highly critical of his approach. “God forbid we talk to people who work in business,” said one reporter in the Fin‘s Sydney newsroom. “God forbid newspapers run articles by people who have actually run businesses — like Harold Mitchell and Mark Bouris — rather than just journalists.”

At a union stopwork meeting yesterday, journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald expressed “support and respect” for Manning and said they hoped for a satisfactory outcome from negotiations with management.