Media: Cash for columns

Frontbenchers not do make ideal columnists, says David Lister
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The Independent Culture
ANN WIDDECOMBE'S penultimate column in the Sunday Express two weeks ago makes interesting reading. She railed against "this age of the compensation culture when the usual reaction to any misfortune is to parade one's suffering, lay blame and sue".

A fortnight later the Shadow Home Secretary is parading her suffering at having her column axed, laying blame at the door of Express Newspapers and suing for compensation. Who says Ms Widdecombe is not a genuine newspaper columnist? She has clearly mastered the columnist's credo - never let consistency get in the way of good rant. Shortly before her pounds 70,000 a year column was axed by the Sunday Express, she reputedly had a "blazing row" with Rosie Boycott, the editor-in-chief. This would have been an altercation to savour: Ms Widdecombe bearing down intimidatingly, threatening divine vengeance, Ms Boycott urging her to stay cool.

Ms Widdecombe is now seeking temporal retribution. She has instructed lawyers to sue the Sunday Express, alleging the newspaper failed to give her proper notice of its intention to dispense with her writings.

She may or may not need the money, or be suffering from wounded pride. What is more likely is that she recognises that a prolonged dispute, let alone a court case, would give her ample scope to make party political capital out of the argument. For she is letting it be known that she suspects a recent column attacking "scrounger Blair" - for taking his holiday in Tuscany at the expense of Italian taxpayers - has infuriated Downing Street, which then asked the paper, owned of course by Labour peer Lord Hollick, to drop her. The retort by Express Newspapers last Friday night pulled few punches, but was rather bizarre. A statement said: "Due to increasing demands on her time it was felt inappropriate for Ann Widdecombe to continue her weekly column in the Sunday Express. The idea that this decision was taken on political grounds is ludicrous. Ann was a member of the Tory party when we hired her. We knew her politics then - they haven't changed, but the quality of her column has."

It is unusually magnanimous for a newspaper to worry about the demands on a writer's time. For such groundbreaking compassion, the Sunday Express should be thanked. But it doesn't exactly disguise the fact that appointing Ms Widdecombe as a columnist was a foolish move. It is extremely rare for a frontbench politician to be used as a newspaper columnist. And the reason is obvious - they put scoring political points first and journalism a distant second. Labour's Roy Hattersley, even in his frontbench opposition days, was the exception - but then his columns were always more likely to be about cricket or canine issues than party politics.

Ms Widdecombe had no interest in such erudition. The Express group, in search of a quick publicity fix, gave her a platform well beyond the dreams of opposition politicians. And she exploited it. Her prose style would not have been out of place on the hustings. On 1 August, for instance, the crimes of electronically tagged offenders was "a gross betrayal of the public by a government which described itself as `tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'."

In the same column she wrote: "Our tough-talking, swaggering, posturing, grinning, preening Prime Minister has been revealed as a man of straw who cannot even stand up to his Cabinet and cut out its deadwood." The following week she added: "The PM appears vain and greedy and, because he takes public adulation for granted and sits on a large parliamentary majority, he expects to get away with it."

It is not just Downing Street, but more pertinently, Sunday Express readers who must have been getting confused by a self- proclaimed left- of-centre middle market tabloid employing a star columnist whose day job is to attack the Prime Minister and government.

The appointment was a publicity-seeking decision lacking editorial logic. And its sudden ending has happened in a way certain to give rise to conspiracy theories and allow the Tory frontbench to accuse Mr Blair of interfering with the press. But if Lord Hollick and Ms Boycott are once again having to hear allegations that Downing Street tells them whom not to employ, then on this occasion they have only themselves to blame.

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