Falling out of small, fat men with big columns

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The Independent Online
Punch, the reborn satirical magazine, seemed to have developed a curse which put Hello in the shade yesterday after its editor was sacked only a month after the premature departure of his deputy.

Peter McKay, the former gossip columnist with a reputation for enjoying the good things in life, left yesterday after a showdown with his chairman, the former London Evening Standard editor Stewart Steven.

Mr McKay had been appointed editor in March by Mr Steven, his old friend and former editor at the Standard.

His job was to relaunch Punch for its new owner, the Harrods proprietor Mohamed al-Fayed, four years after the 151-year-old magazine was closed by United Newspapers amid pounds 1m annual losses and the image of being read only in dentists' waiting rooms. Mr McKay was paid a salary of pounds 180,000, but allegedly on condition that he did not write for any other publication without Mr Steven's written permission.

To Mr Steven's surprise, therefore, he opened the Daily Mail at the start of this month to see a column by Peter McKay. This is understood to have caused a difference of opinion between the two old friends, with Mr Steven taking the view that he would be unable to carry out the difficult task of successfully relaunching Punch if he was devoting some of his time to the Daily Mail.

The column duly disappeared after its first foray, and Fleet Street observers concluded that that was the end of that.

Imagine Mr Steven's astonishment, then, on opening the Mail on Monday to find his editor once again gracing the comment pages with a column.

By now relations are said to have soured somewhat, with Mr McKay arguing that he was perfectly entitled to write a column in his spare time on Sunday and Mr Steven arguing that he was not.

After a formal warning, the saga came to a head. Mr McKay refused to drop his column, arguing in his defence that Mr Steven himself found time to write a political column for the Mail on Sunday.

The dispute was not helped by Punch's feeble circulation, which at around 45,000 is barely more than when it was closed by United.

Mr McKay finally left the magazine yesterday without a pay-off two months after it was launched with a glittering party at Harrods, and one month after his deputy, Mike Molloy, also departed.

It is not clear whether Mr McKay will take legal action.

Mr Steven said last night: "I'm very sorry that Peter McKay has left. I believe he had the chance of turning Punch round, but he behaved in a fashion which made it inevitable that I could no longer work with him."

Mr Steven, who now finds himself back in the editing seat, is expected to begin the search for a replacement at once. As he has in his gift what some regard as one of the best jobs in Fleet Street, with opportunities to be seen around town and a salary larger than some newspaper editors are paid, the task may not prove too onerous.

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