Former Liberal adviser-turned Sunday Herald Sun scribe James Campbell had an interesting column yesterday (in the most amusing edition of the paper in awhile, see media briefs), accusing Ted Baillieu communications tsar Josephine Cafagna of leaning on her 7:30 Victoria successor to ensure government ministers stayed in the spotlight.

Campbell, who is expert at consulting his former Liberal colleagues to extract scoops (including a memorable ski field admission from Benambra MP Bill Tilley that he’d met with dumped assistant police commissioner Sir Ken Jones) wrote that Cafagna had an “ease of access” to the program (previously Stateline) that she hosted until Josie Taylor took over this year.

“We’re always being told to go on it,” complained one miffed minister to the bald yarn-slinger.

But the suggestion that Cafagna was still at the controls of her old show drew a rapid-fire retort from Taylor on Twitter.

The feisty redhead questioned whether Campbell “really thought ministers shouldn’t appear on Victoria’s only state based current affairs TV show” and Campbell hit straight back, citing Taylor’s “delightful” fireside chat with premier Ted Baillieu a few weeks ago.

In his wide-ranging spray, Campbell also quoted a “senior government staffer” moaning that they were hauled over the coals whenever they gave a drop to the Herald Sun as opposed to The Age. The inference here is that Cafagna would prefer the government’s drops were channelled through her husband Paul Austin’s employer (Austin was forced to vacate his role as The Age‘s state political editor amid conflict-of-interest concerns on the afternoon of Cafagna’s appointment. He is now the paper’s opinion editor).

But does the allegation stack up? Campbell references last Friday’s program in which Police Minister Peter Ryan and Corrections Minister Andrew McIntosh both gave interviews. 7:30 Victoria‘s archives show there have been numerous sit-down interviews under Taylor’s reign.

Struggling housing minister Wendy Lovell fronted on 7 October. Ryan also appeared on September 5. Agriculture minister Peter Walsh showed up on August 26, as did Attorney General Robert Clark on August 13, Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge on July 8, Racing minister Denis Napthine on May 6, Kim Wells on May 4 and Baillieu on March 14 (“thank you Josie, it’s always a pleasure to be here and welcome to you too”).

Crikey understands that the main motivation for Campbell’s column was that the Sunday Herald Sun — with 1.1 million readers — is yet to secure a sit-down interview this year with the Premier. By contrast, the twice-blessed 7:30 Victoria had 169,000 viewers last Friday and 144,000 the Friday before, suggesting Baillieu’s notorious “small target strategy” also extends to TV. HWT insiders say former Premier John Brumby regularly provided both News tabloids with in-depth interviews and other secret briefings.

Campbell also claimed that Cafagna had erred in playing off Baillieu’s “elitist instincts”, suggesting she was too far to the left politically to resonate with the Liberals’ popular base.

There are number of mind-bending conflicts and connections on both sides of this dispute. There’s Cafagna liaising with her former program and getting accused by Campbell of placing her husband’s newspaper on the drip. Then there’s Campbell’s former past as a spinner for former-Liberal MP Helen Shardey (who was very close to Ted Baillieu) telling Baillieu’s current spinner how to do her job.

And there’s also Taylor, who has yet to publicly declare her own conflict as the daughter of Victoria’s Deputy Ombudsman John Taylor.

Yesterday, she got the last word in to defend her program’s integrity against the “extraordinary love” shown by Cafagna, saying that “for the record, we often get knock backs, like any other program/newspaper. Maybe you should tune in a bit more.”

Peter Fray

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