<preform>Littlejohn & Phillips: be afraid, very afraid</preform>

Outrage and indignation reach new heights at the Mail as Paul Dacre hires The Sun's 'Mr Angry'
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The Independent Online

The transfer market was rocked last week with the disclosure of the unexpected move, for a substantial sum, of one of the game's leading strikers to a new club. Nothing to do with Steven Gerrard or Liverpool, this transfer, involving agents, as befits the higher levels of the celebrity world, was about newspapers. Richard Littlejohn, journalism's equivalent of a shock jock, is transferring his column from The Sun to the the Daily Mail, from Rebekah Wade to Paul Dacre, from Murdoch to Rothermere. Large sums of money are being discussed.

The transfer market was rocked last week with the disclosure of the unexpected move, for a substantial sum, of one of the game's leading strikers to a new club. Nothing to do with Steven Gerrard or Liverpool, this transfer, involving agents, as befits the higher levels of the celebrity world, was about newspapers. Richard Littlejohn, journalism's equivalent of a shock jock, is transferring his column from The Sun to the the Daily Mail, from Rebekah Wade to Paul Dacre, from Murdoch to Rothermere. Large sums of money are being discussed.

Littlejohn (Irritant of the Year in the 1993 What the Papers Say awards, author of the little read To Hell in a Handcart, former presenter of his own show on Sky) has taken the journalistic form known as the rant to an advanced level, speaking his mind in a way no other does. He is readable; he does not sit on the fence; he is populist; and he says what others dare not but what the editors who hire him believe a large proportion of their readers think.

The undisclosed wage at the Mail is said to be in the £700k to £800k region, which of course is obscene but no more so than football wages, and presumably is his market value, to Dacre anyway. The Mail believes in star columnists, gives them star billing, lavish presentation, constant promotion and as much money as it takes. Its columnists underpin its ethos and identity, go where even its leader columns dare not. From the late Linda Lee-Potter to Keith Waterhouse, from Jeff Powell to Melanie Phillips, they are the paper's heart and soul.

Newspapers are always trying to find new voices, new columnists who will develop a following through the vigour of their writing, the authority or persuasiveness of their opinions, their depth of knowledge, or their humour. They need people who connect with their readers and those are thin on the ground, which is why there is a transfer market.

The Daily Express, that pale imitation of the Mail, has just sacked two of its long-standing columnists, Carol Sarler and Charles Catchpole. TheExpress is no platform for stars. More interested in cost-cutting than journalism, the paper prefers C-grade celebrities (cheaper than Littlejohns) - Vanessa Feltz, Richard and Judy - even yesterday's politicians such as Sir John Nott. So far, we have been spared Abi Titmuss, who is otherwise engaged on an island.

Celebrities from another field tend not to work in print. A celebrity chef or dietician will sell papers for a limited period if they deliver recipes or diets. The true newspaper columnist is a writer first, which is why the best columnists are usually journalists. Even journalists from another medium tend to be less effective: the great broadcaster John Humphrys was not so compelling in The Sunday Times.

At the quality end of the market the newspapers try to grow their columnists, whether political or of the fashionable but tedious "me" school. They are not looking for ranters, being less populist in their dealings with readers. Their columnists contribute to debate rather than shock, which leads to less celebrity. And lower transfer fees.

The Littlejohn relocation may produce some friction at his new home. The past week produced a classic example of the Mail's favourite kind of story, that of Julie Atkins from Derby. She has many children, most of whom produce their own offspring at a disturbingly early age. Men depart; the matriarch blames anyone but herself; the welfare bill is £30,000 a year. The Mail was not the only paper to cover the story, but it did so with the most conviction, because it summed up all that theMail feels most strongly about: welfare scrounging, living off the state, sexual precocity, declining standards, discipline, responsibility, traditional values and saying no.

Its main ranter on such matters, Melanie Phillips was given two pages to comment: "It is surely nothing short of fantastic that the taxpayer should be subsidising behaviour which is so much to the detriment not only of individuals but of the wider society ... The key problem with the welfare state is that it has detached rewards from behaviour. As a result it has destroyed the concept of personal responsibility."

Meanwhile in another paper: "The welfare state was a good idea in principle but it has ended up subsidising the terminally selfish, stupid and lazy ... as someone once said, we are all going to hell in a handcart. Why the hell should we be expected to pick up the bill for the offspring of the feckless and irresponsible?"

This was Littlejohn in The Sun. Is the Mail big enough for both of them?

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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