The Age is bracing for a conflict-of-interest storm following the appointment of Josephine Cafagna — the wife of its veteran political editor Paul “Curly” Austin — as Ted Baillieu’s chief spin doctor.

The announcement of Cafagna’s new role as Head of Strategic Communications was issued this morning in a release sent by Baillieu media tsar Simon Troeth, but it failed to mention the relationship. The new gig could cause concern given that Cafagna, previously the host of the ABC’s respected Stateline program, will be responsible for making sure the government’s lines consistently appear in Victoria’s newspaper of record.

Moles inside The Age this morning noted that editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge was muttering about what might happen to Austin under the new arrangements, and what the new role might mean for his newspaper’s state political coverage.

“Austin will have to go. Surely after what the Herald Sun did with Ellen Whinnett and Tim Holding, The Age would have the same considerations. You’d also have to ask how long, this has been on the cards,” noted one close observer of the state politics/spin doctor merry-go-round.

When News Limited scribe Whinnett’s relationship with former Brumby minister Tim Holding became public a few years back, she gracefully accepted an alternative posting covering non-political stories on the Sunday Herald Sun.

The issue of conflict of interest also arose recently in the case of new ABC 7:30 cohost Chris Uhlmann and his wife, Gai Brodtmann, who is the ALP’s federal Member for Canberra. However, both sides of politics appear to consider Uhlmann’s approach fair and balanced, and there was little protest over his appointment to the nation’s premier political interviewing gig.

But the Austin/Cafagna tie-up would seem more problematic, given her direct responsibility for rolling out spin on behalf of her boss, and deciding which journalists are furnished with regular drops. The issue of over-compensation — in which Cafagna avoids The Age for fear of repercussions — rather than an actual or perceived positive bias, might also enter into considerations.

Under the previous government, the strategic media role was occupied by master communicator George Svigos, who regularly dazzled journalists with fresh angles as their deadlines loomed.

Cafagna is a respected Walkley Award winner and a six-time recipient of the Melbourne Press Club’s Quill Awards. Before Stateline she worked across the ABC stable including stints on The 7:30 Report and Foreign Correspondent.

The Libs’ Troeth refused to speculate on the implications of the appointment for securing favourable media flow, noting only that “we’re very happy to secure Josephine’s services”.

Austin declined to comment on the appointment when contacted by Crikey, or on rumours that he too would soon join the Coalition in a senior communications role. Age sources say Austin often received strategic information from the Baillieu opposition, however the long-time scribe is thought to have been scrupulously fair in his treatment of the leaks.

During the state election campaign, Austin and Cafagna appeared alongside each other on her Stateline panel during the Baillieu-Brumby leaders’ debate one week before polling day.

Yesterday, Austin wrote that Labor was confronting years in the wilderness following last month’s drubbing.

UPDATE: Austin will be shifted to a new post, Age editor Paul Ramadge told staff by email this afternoon:

It was announced earlier today that ABC journalist Josephine Cafagna had been appointed Head of Strategic Communications in the Premier’s office.

First, I congratulate Josephine on her appointment.

For The Age, Paul Austin has done a tremendous job as State Political Editor, in the depth of his reporting and commentary, and through his journalistic leadership. He is an outstanding journalist and his body of work on politics is flawless.

Paul has decided, because of the potential for a conflict of interest, to move to a new role, and I am talking to him about a senior position.

Paul Ramadge

Peter Fray

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