Financial Review Group CEO Brett Clegg led a victory waltz through the AFR‘s Pyrmont offices over the weekend after landing his first major defections from ex-employer The Australian.

The poaching of gun Oz media writer James Chessell with the lure of a re-opened London bureau in 2013 was backed by the re-hiring of former AFR companies editor Tracy Lee to a Fairfax corporate role, as flagged by Crikey in March.

Chessell and Lee had formerly served on The Fin before hauling their fat contact books to News Limited within months of each other in late 2009.

Crikey understands that the duo’s homecoming forms part of a bold Clegg plan to lay waste to his former employer’s business section in retaliation for an extraordinary multimillion dollar putsch led by Australian editor Chris Mitchell in May 2010.

Mitchell famously secured the services of Clegg (then the Fin‘s deputy editor), his wife Annabel Hepworth and Damon Kitney, the son of veteran AFR Canberra watcher Geoff, telling Fairfax staff to “send me your pay slip and I’ll match it.”

But the battlefield has shifted nearly 180 degrees since after the re-hiring of Clegg by crafty Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood in March — just three weeks into his new job as The Australian‘s “deputy CEO”.

Following a six-month hiatus, the fresh-faced corporate rainmaker has gleefully re-opened hostilities with his former Holt Street cubicle dwellers.

One senior AFR scribe told Crikey this morning said that the poachings “give morale a boost … it shows Brett can make things happen and turns the tide on the Glenn Burge years.”

And insiders say The Oz should be bracing for more departures as Clegg gets to work texting his old colleagues with salary offers high enough to make Fairfax shareholders wince. The AFR has already snagged back Reuters mergers and acquisitions scribe Mike Smith and is also understood to have recently pinched another business journo from the SMH.

While Clegg has reportedly spent his six months gardening leave scuba diving, hostilities between the media giants have been percolating just below the surface. In May, sadly departed Australian media diarist Caroline Overington included a weird threat to Clegg to “watch your back”, indicating supreme unease in The Oz‘s ranks since their popular leader’s reverse ferret.

Crikey understands The Oz’s appointment of former media editor Geoff Elliott, who replaced Clegg as business editor, has played out poorly with many reporters unhappy with his lack of communication and leadership. Elliott was fingered ahead of the talented Chessell for the prime job, which given the latest developments seems to have been an unwise move.

The Fin‘s causalities have spread themselves far and wide with ex-ed Burge turning his talents to the implementation of a bizarre internal filing system for Fairfax editorial content and Clegg’s dumped predecessor Michael Gill popping up as a consultant for multinational door opener Dragoman.

Former Australian Financial Review Rear Window columnist Stephen Mayne told Crikey this morning that Clegg’s opening salvo was just the beginning.

“Damon Kitney and John Durie are the two other obvious targets to return to the fold and I personally believe Michael Stutchbury would make a good choice of editor, although some at Fairfax regard him as ‘too right wing,'” Mayne said.

The AFR needs to own all the best names in business journalism. Getting Clegg back was a good start and his recruitment of Chessell sends an excellent message in terms of rebuilding The AFR‘s reputation for quality.”

When asked if he wanted his old job editing Rear Window back, Mayne declined to comment.

Separate AFR sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on the matter, confirmed the view that acting editor Paul Bailey had successfully beaten off deputy managing editor Sean Aylmer for the permanent gig on the day-to-day coalface. However, there remains a peripheral suggestion that Oz turncoat Damon Kitney could still be convinced, or even that Clegg could tap an outside appointment.

Meanwhile, The Weekend Australian Magazine‘s ad staff are expected to cop a severe grilling this week for a double-page Qantas splash that showed its subjects reading The AFR instead of The Oz on the relaunched glossy’s opening pages.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey