Staff at ailing national business daily The Australian Financial Review are bracing for a blast of deregulatory fervour following the appointment of The Australian‘s Michael Stutchbury as the paper’s editor-in-chief.

Stutchbury, The Oz‘s economics editor who developed an affinity for the invisible hand during his days at the University of Adelaide, is expected to position himself as an ideological svengali surfing above The AFR newsroom’s daily cut and thrust.

Journalists say he will almost certainly embark on a Peter Reith-style offensive on talismanic top-end-of-town issues like productivity and industrial relations reform.

“He’ll be there to spearhead campaigns,” a senior AFR journalist told Crikey this morning. “[CEO] Brett Clegg has been saying he wants the paper to be more engaged in debates and be more part of the public debate … but you just hope that we’re not going to turn into the f-cking Australian.”

“The thing that struck us is that Michael’s going to be an editor-in-chief rather than an editor … I can’t imagine he’ll be very hands-on.”

Stutchbury’s defection from News brings to three the number of senior Australian staff poached by the savvy Clegg with the support of Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood over the past week. Clegg defected from the News Limited broadsheet in March.

In his email to staff announcing the appointment late yesterday, Clegg hinted at the exciting road ahead, using phrases such as “revitalising” and “intellectual gravitas”.

“We both hold strong views around the crucial role that The AFR can, should and must play in reporting and analysing policy formation and business activity in this country — especially as it impacts upon our core business and financial markets constituencies,” Clegg wrote.

While The Fin‘s editorial leaders have consistently been pro-market, business figures consistently complain about its approach to general reporting, which they claim is insufficiently celebratory of the wondrousness of commerce. Columnists including Laura Tingle are resented in some besuited circles for their sceptical approach.

Until last night’s announcement, the paper was under the daily control of Paul Bailey. He is expected to remain in his managing editor role with Stutchbury overseeing various public thrusts in the mould of Chris Mitchell.

The latest raid comes after a period of staff transfers away from News Limited and towards Clegg’s new Fairfax fiefdom on the other side of the Sydney CBD. Last week, quick-typing media gun James Chessell and Tracy Lee joined the stampede to Pyrmont, with observers ticking off a list of scribes set to make triumphant homecomings.

Chief among those is the mooted return of Clegg’s wife Annabel Hepworth. Speculation is rife that last week’s appointment of four-time Walkley winner Pamela “dark and stormy night” Williams as “editor-at-large” will pave the way for Hepworth to become national affairs editor.

Clegg and Stutchbury will confront a mammoth task rebuilding the paper’s damaged business model that has failed to keep pace with the digital revolution. Weekday circulation has slumped 25% from the paper’s heyday to just 73,769. By Fairfax’s own admission, AFR.com has underwhelmed with subscribers numbering just 7191 in March.

But former AFR editor turned commercial rival Alan Kohler refutes the suggestion the paper would take up the cudgels on behalf of the business community: “That’s ridiculous, Michael is a very very good professional journalist, an experienced editor … he’s got tremendous knowledge of the Australian economy and he’s well connected.”

However, Kohler did say there was a perception in some business quarters that some parts of the paper had been too reluctant to celebrate success.

“It is true that some people think that about the Financial Review. My reading of Michael’s columns over the years is definitely that he’s someone who appreciates and understands success … if that is not true now of the Financial Review it is definitely true of Michael.”

While feted for his dry approach to the economy, some wiser heads remember that Stuchbury — unlike Terry McCrann — was a big backer of Hawke and Keating’s total reform package during his 16-year stint at The Fin, that included dividends on health and education. McCrann argued the unions’ social chop-out would bankrupt Australia.

He leaves a gaping hole at The Oz, with sources inside the paper’s newsroom claiming this morning that Stutchbury’s logical successor as economics editor, David Uren, was too “balanced” to take a leadership role on economic reform and wouldn’t push the paper’s agenda.

Meanwhile, three floors up at Pyrmont, senior sources inside The SMH report the paper is looking for a national business editor who will take charge of co-ordinating the often dysfunctional SMH and Age Business Day entities.

Peter Fray

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