The ABC has accused the Morrison government of using News Corp to attack its journalism after the Australian was briefed about a series of government questions for the broadcaster before the ABC received them.
On the front page of the Australian on Wednesday, investigations editor Sharri Markson reported that the ABC “is facing questions from the Morrison government” over the use of private investigators for its Four Corners report on inappropriate behaviour by ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.
But the ABC had not received any questions by Wednesday morning.
Related: Communications minister Paul Fletcher complains to ABC about Four Corners program
“These questions have not yet been received by the ABC; they appear to have been sent to the Australian first,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
“The ABC did receive some questions yesterday from the Australian’s Sharri Markson, which we answered in full.
“This exchange has resulted in a page one ‘Exclusive’ story in the Australian today headlined: ‘Did the ABC have ministers tailed?’
“We reiterate the answer we have already provided to this question.
The report in the Australian follows the publication on Twitter on Tuesday of a letter from communications minister Paul Fletcher in which he asked ABC chair Ita Buttrose if the Four Corners program met the standards of accurate and impartial journalism.
The letter and the leak to the Australian has escalated the war the government is waging on the Four Corners program, which began before the story aired last month.
Hours before the program aired, ABC managing director David Anderson told Senate estimates Buttrose had contacted him to say a ministerial staffer had contacted another member of the ABC board to “alert them this story was coming”.
“What I’ve had are questions as to whether it’s in the public interest,” Anderson told Senate estimates when he was asked to justify the story before it aired.
Anderson said it was extraordinary that the Coalition is attacking a program it hadn’t seen yet.
Fletcher admitted on ABC radio on Tuesday that a senior adviser from his office contacted a member of the ABC board to complain about Four Corners.
Related: Ita Buttrose says intensifying campaign against ABC contains ‘malicious garbage’
Markson wrote that Four Corners had been asked “whether a private investigator conducted covert surveillance on senior ministers at taxpayer expense during the compilation of its report exposing the private lives of politicians”.
“The government has escalated its row with the ABC over the controversial Four Corners program by asking ABC managing director David Anderson to investigate if Attorney-General Christian Porter or Cities Minister Alan Tudge were subject to surveillance – or any other private investigation – including that paid for by a third party,” the Australian reported.
“‘Can the ABC confirm that neither minister featured in the program was monitored, secretly recorded or the subject of any other form of surveillance’, the questions read.”
Despite the ABC telling the Australian on Tuesday it did not use private investigators and no one was tailed, the newspaper published the speculative story “ABC asked: did you have ministers tailed for Four Corners report?” on the front page.
The executive producer of Four Corners, Sally Neighbour, described the story as “arrant, scurrilous nonsense”.
“We invite the public to watch the story and decide for themselves on the import of the issues it raises,” the ABC said.
“The ABC stands by its journalistic independence and right to report without fear or favour on matters Australians have a right to know about.”
Markson reported that “new questions” were lodged on Tuesday night by Liberal senator Sarah Henderson, but the Senate committee told the ABC it had not received them yet.
A spokesman for the communications committee said on Wednesday the questions on notice from Henderson had now been received but declined to say when. They have not been published yet.