The Media Column: The life of a newspaper diarist: warm wine, amusing toffs and naked peers

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The Independent Online

Like a kiss-and-tell lap dancer moving from one frisky footballer to the next, the Daily Mail did not wait long after the departure of Nigel Dempster before salivating over the imminent arrival of his replacement. In the days that followed Dempster's exit, due to the sudden deterioration of the gossip columnist's health, the paper began a teaser campaign to alert its readers that they would not be short-changed. "Watch this space to find out who's going to be the Mail's brilliant new diarist..." "The guessing goes on..." "The waiting's nearly over..."

Well, now we know who the mystery man is: Richard Kay, formerly the paper's royal man - and the reporter whose career was made when, in 1994, he was photographed by rivals getting into the passenger seat of the Princess of Wales's Audi.

But Diana is dead, royal news does not sell as it once did, and Kay - suave, polite, dapper - has not been able to play to his strengths in the paper. His name and face go down well with the Mail's readers, especially women. So the new billet suits the paper well. Others' suggestions that Kay was not keen on being moved - there is a big difference between being a front-page scoop-monster and being a comfy brand inside, on page 47 - are dismissed by those close to the writer. Or, as Kay himself might now write: "A Mail scribbler with his ear to the ground at the paper's west-London HQ insists that any talk of a rift between Kay and his bosses is 'way off'."

Time for a confession. In a former life, I, too, was a gossip columnist - albeit a little down the food chain from the esteemed Kay. I began my newspaper career at the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary and spent several happy years drinking warm white wine at appalling parties, in pursuit of vital stories about amusing toffs, misbehaving politicians and C-list celebrities.

Londoner's Diary, like virtually all gossip columns, including Kay's, is written in the first person and presented as the work of one author. In fact, at the Standard, there are up to nine reporters involved every day. They are an engaging bunch - among them are a former notorious Young Conservative wild child; a hereditary peer who benefits from a top-up income now that he cannot draw an attendance allowance in the Lords; and an Old Etonian who once hid a packet of fish fingers behind the bath of a former Fleet Street editor who had fired him.

The jolly collection of characters on gossip columns - you don't find many peers of the realm on news desks - goes some way to explaining the language that characterises their pages. The posher diaries never "reveal" stories; rather, they "disclose" them to their readers. People do not "say" anything; instead, they "squeal", "shriek", "wail" or "sob" their utterances.

The impression must always be given that the diarist is omniscient and chooses to scatter just enough morsels in the direction of his readers for them to keep them scurrying back for more, rather in the manner of a tobacconist dishing out single cigarettes to schoolchildren.

The stories, too, are different. My favourite newspaper headline appeared in the Londoner's Diary, sadly a short while before I joined the column. The story was a corker. The late Lord Havers, father of the actor Nigel Havers, was then Attorney General and had been seen by a reliable contact enjoying himself in a nudists' colony. For such a stiff and upright member of the Establishment to be seen in such surroundings was, of course, simply the most exciting story imaginable for a gossip column. One problem: when the column's reporter telephoned Lord H, he insisted that he had not been to this nudist colony or any other. He did not take his clothes off ever, except to get into the bath or bed. The paper's informant must be mistaken. Lord H then went one stage further and deployed what we might now call the Iain Duncan Smith defence: "Print it, and I sue."

So, the Londoner's Diary did not run a story about Lord Havers's visit to a nudist colony. Instead, it published a piece headlined: "Havers plagued by nude double", underneath which was a highly sympathetic article pointing out how simply awful it must be for the Attorney General to live under the burden of having a naked man - whose facial features (and - who knows? - perhaps other ones) he happened to share - on the loose, causing so much mayhem.

As far as I know, no complaint was ever received - from either Lord Havers or his nude double. And, of course, no future diary reference to Lord Havers, no matter what it concerned, was ever without its sensitive reference to his naked doppelganger friend.