Is Paul Dacre the new Roman Abramovich?

The 'Daily Mail' has been pinching star columnists for its team and offering some of the heftiest pay deals on Fleet Street. Will the spree bring it more readers and take the paper up-market?

Fleet Street frequently resembles the Premier League, and never more than when major signings are taking place. First there are the rumours, the behind-the-scenes wrangling and the outright denials. Then at last comes the announcement, complete with the price tag the star performer has attracted.

In the Fleet Street league, there is no doubt which group is Chelsea: Associated Newspapers has been signing star columnists up for fees that leave other papers cursing.

Last week Peter Oborne became the latest writer signed for £200,000 to join the Daily Mail line-up, having left his job as political editor of The Spectator. The Sunday Telegraph decided not to keep him in the Barclay fold by giving him a column, a decision regarded as "mad" by many observers. He joins a trail of other buy-ups from the Barclay brothers' empire in the past year, including Tom Utley, the star Telegraph columnist who was offered £120,000 by the Mail after he sensibly revealed that he was paid less than £100,000 a year. Sarah Sands was another transfer, given an executive desk after being abruptly sacked as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and last July the long-standing Telegraph sports writer, Paul Hayward, also went to the Mail.

The Mail likes buying columnists the way footballers' wives like buying shoes. Earlier purchases include Amanda Platell, Liz Jones, whose Standard salary was doubled when she went to the Mail, Allison Pearson, who followed suit for an estimated £350,000, and Richard Littlejohn, a hugely expensive item at around £700,000 which many readers say does not fit and ought to be returned.

But as the Mail itself might put it, does this kind of conspicuous consumption serve any purpose? Certainly the buying spree has not come cheap. Last week the Mail increased its cover price by 5p to 45p, a decision it had taken "reluctantly" and for the first time in five years.

And while columnists bank their salaries, other journalists have been collecting their P45s. In a tough advertising market the Mail has enforced a programme of cost-cutting and redundancies to slash £500,000 from the editorial budget.

Against this background, the influx of columnists has produced some high theatre on the Daily Mail features desk. Staff have been suffering from "the war of the blurbs" between Richard Littlejohn and Allison Pearson over the size and position of their respective masthead trailers - a war Pearson appears to be winning. "The poor old features desk have had a load of it," said one on the scene. "They're having serious handling problems with Allison. It's like having Desert Orchid in the back of a truck. She's good but very highly strung."

Generally, however, there has never been a better time to be a Mail columnist, even if the job does have its occupational hazards.

"The problem for Mail columnists is always having to cater to Paul Dacre's agenda," said one. "Like his rabid anti-Americanism and his opposition to the Iraq war. He lets his views be known and he will interfere. He's a control freak."

On the other hand, Dacre is thought to look kindly on older established columnists such as John Edwards, Roy Hattersley and Andrew Alexander, who might otherwise fear being squeezed out. "Dacre is very aware of the contribution people have made to a paper. He is quite respectful of the older contributors and takes the view that they should be permitted to decide their own departure," one journalist told me.

However deep the Mail's pockets, questions remain as to the effectiveness of its strategy. To continue the footballing metaphor, is the Mail focusing too much on its strikers and not enough on mid-field players and defenders? Do columnists actually sell newspapers?

"On weeks like the last one when there is so much news, you do feel a little surplus to requirements," conceded one Mail columnist, "but generally columnists are what sell newspapers. News has become a commodity that everyone has, so columns are the main point at which you do become distinctive."

"People buy newspapers out of habit, but a columnist can actually stop them buying," warned another. "There have been a lot of letters and emails about Littlejohn. A lot of readers really, really dislike him."

There is another, Machiavellian motive behind the Mail's purchase of other people's stars. If the Mail snaps up a columnist, it does not need to use them, it just means no one else can. Tom Utley, for example, is to write leaders but may not get a regular weekly column, a decision many would regard as a waste of his idiosyncratic talents.

"You do need your own parking space," said another columnist. "You don't want to be out there fighting for space." Unreliable allocation of space was thought to be one motive for Simon Heffer's decision to move back to The Telegraph, and for Melanie Phillips' decision to begin her own blog where she can vent surplus spleen. And the other problem with an overload of columnists is the danger of homogeneity. "You don't want a surfeit of ranting. You don't want me, me, me. You need a change of pace," says one familiar with the Mail's output.

Behind the Mail's buying spree is an urge to expand its space in the market - and in particular up-market - towards the turf currently occupied by the Telegraph. It was significant that Tom Utley was described by Jeremy Deedes, former Telegraph Group chief executive, as "the authentic voice of the Telegraph". The first step towards taking a newspaper's readers must be to take its writers.

The success of the Mail in closing the gap between itself and the Telegraph can also be seen in the easy shuffling of players between the two papers. Former Associated executives now stalk the corridors of the Telegraph as their own. Simon Heffer, the brilliant and maverick columnist at the Mail, moved to become associate editor of the Telegraph; and the Mail's assistant features editor Liz Hunt also crossed over.

With the Mail's relentless move up-market, Only the signing of Richard Littlejohn from The Sun has let the side down. Aspirational Mail readers have complained that Littlejohn is too "common". "It's sending a very confused message. What sort of paper has Tom Utley and Richard Littlejohn writing for it?" says one columnist. "I think Dacre realises he's made a very expensive mistake there."

But the poaching of Utley and Oborne should go some way to correcting that lapse in tone. And whoever comes next - whether it be Craig Brown or Boris Johnson - there are plenty of writers out there wondering why, oh why, the Mail has not yet called.

TRANSFER TARGETS?

Peter Oborne

Position: Centre right, but free to roam

Transfer fee: £200,000 pa

Previous: Political editor of The Spectator

Sharp thinker on politics, can play hard ball on economics

Amanda Platell

Position: Pops up all over

Transfer fee: Unknown

Previous: Irregular columnist Says the unsayable with more conviction than is good for her. Seen as being in the Lynda Lee-Potter mould

Richard Littlejohn

Position: Right inside

Transfer fee: £700,000 pa

Previous: Star Sun columnist

Much admired by Dacre, but considered a little coarse for Middle England. Will leave no anti-gay joke untold

Liz Jones

Position: Free floating

Previous: Evening Standard

Transfer fee: Enough to keep her in expensive shoes

She will keep club doctors on their toes. Not much tricksy footwork in a pair of Manolos

Tom Utley

Position: Libertarian right

Transfer fee: £120,000 pa

Previous: Daily Telegraph

Sharp take on middle Britain with a mischief that may escape Mail readers. Enjoys the social side of the game

Allison Pearson

Position: Centre forward

Transfer fee: £350,000 pa

Previous: Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph

Mumsy soft-left and approachable but has a sharp line in Blair-baiting

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit