ABC boss Mark Scott and The Australian‘s editorial dictator Chris Mitchell have been battling it out for years — the managing director through his public statements, Mitchell through the paper of which he’s editor-in-chief. But so far, they’ve never publicly slogged it out in the same room.

On Tuesday, Scott gave a keynote speech in Melbourne about the state of Australian media. The Centre for Advancing Journalism’s Margaret Simons had originally envisioned the event as a debate between the two heavyweights, one that Mitchell turned down.

She said as much on the night, and yesterday, the ABC’s head of corporate affairs Michael Millett baited News Corp on the matter, responding to Fairfax journalist Mike Carlton by asking whether Mitchell had ever publicly defended the Oz. “Melbourne Uni asked him to debate Mark [Scott] on Tuesday but he squibbed it,” Millet wrote on Twitter. “Guess he prefers probing interviews from his own reporters.”

Crikey asked Millett if he had anything more to say on the matter. He referred us to Simons, who said the event was conceived as a debate between Scott and his critics at The Australian, moderated by former Age editor (now research fellow at the centre) Michael Gawenda. The centre invited Mitchell, News Corp chief executive Julian Clarke, veteran Oz political writer Paul Kelly and former CEO Kim Williams along. Three declined, and Kelly did not respond.

“The centre, under both my leadership and that of Michael Gawenda, has invited Chris Mitchell to appear a number of times, including to give the AN Smith [Lecture],” Simons told Crikey. “He has not agreed to do so.”

Mitchell told Crikey that due to the rollout of the Methode publishing system across The Australian, he wasn’t able to go. He says he made a counter-proposal for a debate in Sydney, which wasn’t good for the University of Melbourne’s Simons.

Mitchell didn’t appreciate Millett’s suggestion that he had “squibbed it”, saying: “I also feel it is presumptuous of a third-rater like Millett to suggest I need to defend the Oz.

“The Oz is the only media organisation that belled the cat on Rudd in 2008 … and as should be clear from the speeches by Martin Parkinson and Glenn Stevens this week was one of the few to call correctly the Labor government’s recklessness on its spending blowouts.

“The people who should be explaining their coverage include Crikey, the ABC and Fairfax, all of which were blinded by their own ideologies to the two worst PMs we have seen in nearly 40 years. Some still regard Gillard fondly, unlike Labor’s own frontbench, which views the entire six years with horror.”

In 2012, the AN Smith lecture was given by Williams, who was then CEO of News Limited. Simons says it was a good event, and she’s keen to get News Corp executives along to future events at the university.

So can anything bring these two men together? Mitchell isn’t opposed to the idea of a debate. Crikey is happy to host, gentlemen …

Peter Fray

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