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Court in the Act
19 May, 2010  
Hungry to sell

Cross examination … Marvel at how Peter Blunden handles tight corners in Guthrie v News Ltd ... Norman O’Bryan on a roll … Tabloid temperaments flare … Tom Westbrook wades through the transcript


imageWhile Bruce Guthrie only got around 20 percent of what he asked for in his case against News Ltd, he must have drawn some quiet satisfaction from Justice Stephen Kaye’s findings about his opponents, the 500 pound gorillas at Rupert Murdoch’s local operations – John Hartigan and Peter Blunden (pic).

See William Collins’ analysis

Guthrie said that he was sacked improperly and he sued News for more than $2.5 million.

Justice Stephen Kaye agreed about the wrongful dismissal, but not about Guthrie’s claim for lost opportunity for comparable re-employment:

“As a result of the breach by the defendant of the contract of employment of the plaintiff, the plaintiff suffered loss and damage, consisting of the termination payment to which he would have been entitled under clause 22.4 of the contract, if the defendant’s wrongful breach of the contract had not prevented the plaintiff completing his term of service with the defendant.”

What did get a good airing was some of News Ltd’s dirty linen as well as the loose edges of its contracts.

Peter Blunden, the managing director of News subsidiary Herald and Weekly Times and News’ big banana down under John Hartigan found themselves in the witness box being cross-examined, which led Justice Kaye to make unflattering findings about their creditworthiness.

Slices of transcript serve to bring out some of the spices and flavour.

imageDuring his evidence-in-chief Blunden strenuously denied complaining to Guthrie about a front page story, “Beverly Hills Cop”:

Will Houghton: In October 2008 do you recall that The Herald Sun published a front page story entitled ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ about the trip of the then Chief Commissioner of Police [Christine Nixon, pic] on a Qantas flight to Los Angeles?

Peter Blunden: Yes, I do remember.

Houghton: I want to ask you this. On the day that that story appeared, Mr Guthrie has given some evidence and I want to put this to you and get your response. Do you recall having any conversation on that day just prior to you going to lunch with him somewhere about that particular story?

Blunden: No, I don’t.

Houghton: Mr Guthrie gave evidence, transcript 85, Your Honour, that at about 12.30 on that day you came down to Mr Guthrie’s office at about 12.30 to collect him for this luncheon engagement, do you recall that?

Blunden: I do.

Houghton: He gave evidence that he went to put his coat on to leave with you, but you gestured him back into the office, closed the door behind him and said: ‘Janet’s not happy.’ Did that take place?

Blunden: Did not happen.

Houghton: Let’s go bit by bit. First of all, did you bring him back into his office and close the door behind him?

Blunden: No.

Houghton: Did he say to you: ‘What do you mean?’ And you responded: ‘Janet’s not happy with our coverage of the story.’ Did that happen?

Blunden: No, it did not happen.

Houghton: Did you say to him that: Janet thinks we have been too hard on Christine Nixon’?

Blunden: No.

imageJanet is Janet Calvert-Jones (seen here right), sister of Rupert Murdoch, mate of Christine Nixon and then chair of Herald and Weekly Times. The questions from Will Houghton continued:

Houghton: I want to put another conversation to you that Mr Guthrie gave evidence about, transcript 86 for Your Honour’s assistance. About a week or so later Mr Guthrie says you and he were flying in the same aeroplane to conferences in Sydney, you to a managing’ directors’ conference at Holt Street and he to an editors’ conference, do you recall that occasion some time in late October 2008?

Blunden: Yes, I do.

Houghton: He said that you gestured to him to join you in the vacant seat on the aeroplane next to him; did that take place?

Blunden: I believe that happened, yes.

Houghton: He said that you talked during that flight on a number of – a great many subjects, do you recall that?

Blunden: We would have done, yes, yes.

Houghton: He said that when you got to the airport in Sydney you offered him a lift in your car, did that happen?

Blunden: Yes.

Houghton: And as you were walking through the airport to go to your car you said to him, ‘I’m not sure we got it right on Christine Nixon’. Did that happen?

Blunden: No.

Houghton: Mr Guthrie says he asked you to clarify that and you said to him, ‘I’m not sure she did anything wrong’. Did you say that?

Blunden: No.

Houghton: Did he say to you, ‘We’ll agree to disagree on that mate, but the feedback from readers and on talkback radio is that we got it right and she got it wrong’. Did he say that to you?

Blunden: No.

Houghton: Do you recall any conversations at about this time with Mr Guthrie about that subject matter?

Blunden: Not that story.

Ironically, The Age revealed that Blunden himself missed a management meeting joyriding in the very same A380 aircraft that carried Nixon to LA.

Then there was the cross-examination of Blunden by Guthrie’s counsel, Norman O’Bryan SC.

From the outset Blunden was under the pump over what exactly he did to rectify the publication, by Guthrie, of what Blunden had earlier called “highly deceptive” circulation figures:

O’Bryan: Mr Blunden, may His Honour take it from the answers that you gave to the questions which Mr Houghton put to you about the circulation figures that were published in The Herald Sun in February 2008, that you regard very, very highly indeed ensuring that News Limited never misleads its readers?

Blunden: Yes, that’s right.

O’Bryan: I can’t hear you I’m sorry?

Blunden: Yes.

O’Bryan: If you discover that News Limited or one of its publications has misled its readers in any respect you do something about that immediately, don’t you?

Blunden: Yes, I would.

HH: Can you just pull the microphone a bit closer.

O’Bryan: Sorry, Your Honour, is that better?

HH: Yes.

O’Bryan: Mr Blunden, what in fact did you do to correct what you regarded as misleading the readers in connection with the publication of those circulation figures, about which you’ve given evidence? What did you do?

Blunden: Well I asked Mr Guthrie to fix it.

O’Bryan: What else?

Blunden: It’s his job, I don’t press the buttons on the paper.

O’Bryan: What else did you do apart from asking Mr Guthrie to fix it?

Blunden: I formed a view that he should not – - he wasn’t fit to be editor.

O’Bryan: No, I don’t want your views Mr Blunden.

Blunden: I did nothing more, I did nothing more than that.

O’Bryan: You did nothing, right.

Later, O’Bryan established that as the relationship deteriorated Blunden agitated for Guthrie’s sacking, behind his back.

O’Bryan: You were communicating with Mr Hartigan, I put it to you, at least once a week and in many weeks more than once a week criticising Mr Guthrie, that’s true isn’t it?

Blunden: I had a lot of issues with Bruce, a lot of issues with the paper and with the people.

O’Bryan: Can you answer my question please, Mr Blunden?

Blunden: Yes, many times I did.

O’Bryan: At least once a week and in many weeks more than once a week throughout 2008, weren’t you?

Blunden: It was many times.

O’Bryan: Not only many times, Mr Blunden, it was continuous, wasn’t it?

Blunden: I was consistent in my outlook but respected John’s opinion to give them more chances.

O’Bryan: You worked assiduously on Mr Hartigan to get him to agree to terminate Guthrie, didn’t you, during 2008?

Blunden: I had a strong point of view.

O’Bryan: Yes, you worked – -

HH: You expressed that to Mr Hartigan?

Blunden: Yes, I did.

HH: Throughout 2008?

Blunden: On many occasions. Quite a few occasions.

[snip]

O’Bryan: You made it your business to report to Mr Hartigan every week and sometimes more than once a week, criticisms of Mr Guthrie, didn’t you?

Blunden: In the course of all the issues I discuss with the chief executive, Mr Guthrie’s performance came up regularly, yes.

O’Bryan: You never told Mr Guthrie that you were doing that, did you?

Blunden: No, I didn’t.

O’Bryan: Why not?

Blunden: Well I didn’t think it was his – he didn’t need to know what I was talking to Mr Hartigan about.

O’Bryan: He didn’t?

Blunden: Bruce was clear on what I felt. He was very clear on what I felt based on a range of confrontations.

O’Bryan: Is it your evidence that in your opinion this was not a matter which it would have been appropriate for you to have mentioned to Mr Guthrie at any time in 2008, all of these communications you were having with Hartigan, is that your evidence?

Blunden: I don’t make the final decision on Mr Guthrie’s employment, Mr Hartigan does. It’s not appropriate for me to pre-empt to Mr Guthrie what Mr Hartigan might decide. It was inappropriate in my view.

O’Bryan: Do you think it might have been the decent thing to do Mr Blunden, to have let Mr Guthrie know that you were talking to Hartigan all these times during 2008, criticising him?

Blunden: It was not the proper thing to do, no.

O’Bryan: Do you think it would have been the decent thing to do Mr Blunden?

Blunden: I did it to his face. I told Bruce what I thought.

HH: Did you tell Mr Guthrie that you were telling Mr Hartigan about these problems?

Blunden: I don’t believe so.

O’Bryan: Well Mr Blunden, you know you did not, don’t you? Let’s not beat around the bush, you know you did not say once to Bruce Guthrie in 2008, ‘By the way Bruce, I’m talking to Hartigan every week, sometimes more than once a week. I’m criticising you, I want you removed.’ You never said that, did you?

Blunden: I didn’t believe that was appropriate.

O’Bryan: The answer to my question is yes, isn’t it Mr Blunden?

Blunden: Yes.

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