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

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