This is rather something. In an editorial todayThe Australian calls on Fairfax chief Greg Hywood to “salvage the reputation” of The Australian Financial Review before “it’s completely shredded by the deranged output of senior reporter Neil Chenoweth”, who’s supposedly given free rein under the “the inattentive eye of AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury”.

The missive is prompted by Chenoweth’s reporting of a News Corp tax win that helped blow out the federal budget by the odd billion or so. But it’s Stutch who comes in for the fiercest criticism. The paper intones:

“Stutchbury, who was considered incompetent by staff of this newspaper before his removal as editor, and his senior editors should be held to account for publishing Chenoweth’s blatantly dishonest reporting.”

We wondered if Stutchbury might speak to his lawyers. “I don’t believe that editors should take action for defamation other [than] in the most extraordinary instances,” he told us.

Here’s his response to the stoush:

The Australian is perfectly entitled to challenge any story in The Australian Financial Review. But the guts of the yarn remains entirely legitimate: the Australian Tax Office paid $882 million to News Corporation last year. This came after a Federal Court ruled against the ATO’s disallowance of a $2 billion tax deduction claimed from a series paper transactions between the company’s subsidiaries. At the same time the ATO was deciding not to appeal the court decision, News Corp newspapers in Australia were running a vigorous campaign against the then-Labor government. The payout to News Corp, which is one of the largest tax payments made by the ATO, only came to light following the release of the company’s group accounts last week. The issue of multinational tax payments of course is one of the key agenda items on the G20 finance ministers’ meeting to be chaired by Treasurer Joe Hockey this weekend.

“While The Australian is entitled to challenge any interpretation of these facts, its personal attacks on the Financial Review‘s Walkley Award-winning Neil Chenoweth do not advance its argument. Chenoweth’s long history of investigative reporting, from Rene Rivkin to Eddie Obeid, is unsurpassed in Australian financial journalism. Personally, I am disappointed at The Australian‘s personal attack on myself, which its editors know to be incorrect.”

Stutchbury — who served as editor of the Oz under current editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell — came under fire from other journalists for seemingly burying a ripper yarn about his former employer all the way back on page eight of the Fin. When Crikey interviewed Mitchell and Stutchbury for The Power Index two years ago, they seemed close, even after Stutchbury famously defected to Fairfax in 2011.

What went wrong?

Peter Fray

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