Mail ups the ante

By Dominic Ponsford

Britain’s best paid newspaper columnist has signed up with the Daily
Mail – in the same week its arch rival, the Daily Express, axed two of
its big-name writers.

Richard Littlejohn is understood to be on at least £700,000 a year
at The Sun for his twice-weekly column, so poaching him represents a
huge investment for the Mail.

The announcement of his move comes
as veteran Express columnists Carol Sarler and Charlie Catchpole have
been terminated in what is believed to be a cost-cutting drive.

It
will be Littlejohn’s second stint at the Mail after previously working
there from 1994 to 1998. Before that he spent five years at The Sun and
10 years at the London Evening Standard.

He was understood to be
on a deal worth more than £1m a year with Sun owners News Corporation,
which included four nights a week presenting the Littlejohn show on Sky
News. According to one insider at Wapping, he decided to go back to the
Mail because he was unhappy about his Sky News show being axed last
July.

But others believe Littlejohn’s outspoken views will be more in tune with the right of centre Daily Mail.

The
columnist has been a vociferous critic of the Labour government and the
Blairs, dubbing the Prime Minister’s wife “the Wicked Witch” – but in
the run-up to the general election, The Sun was broadly pro-Blair and
urged readers to vote Labour on 5 May.

Littlejohn said it had
always been his intention to return to the Daily Mail and added: “I am
delighted this is now going to happen.”

His Sun contract runs until February, but the Mail has said he is due to start at the paper this year.

Sarler
had been at the Express for four and a half years and before that
worked for seven and half years as a columnist at the Sunday People.
Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe will take over her Wednesday slot for
what is understood to be a greatly reduced fee.

Catchpole
had been at the paper for four years, writing a Monday column about
television. Previously he was a columnist at the Daily Mirror and
the News of the World.

Both are expected to finish their contracts in August.

One
Daily Express insider said: “Their cost cutting means they don’t have a
single columnist left on the paper who is a fulltime print journalist.
I think that’s an incredible dereliction at a newspaper.”

The
major columnist slots at the Express are now taken by television
personalities Vanessa Feltz, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan,
novelist Frederick Forsyth and Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary in
Margaret Thatcher’s government in the early 1980s.

In another development, believed to be linked to cost-cutting, cartoonist Hector Breeze has also been axed.

One Express source said: “Our management are always interested in saving money.

They
tell us on a routine basis that’s what they want and that’s what they
will be doing – that they will be making cuts wherever they can.”

Another
insider said: “One theory going the rounds is that Sir John Nott will
be promoted to the page 13 slot, opposite the leader page. John Nott
versus Richard Littlejohn. If that was a boxing match, the referee
would stop the bout in the first round.”

The
cutbacks follow Express Newspapers’ decision in March to scrap the
glossy S:2 entertainment magazine from the Sunday Express for a
reported annual saving of £3.5m.

Express Newspapers declined to comment on the latest cuts.

Currently the Mail’s circulation is 2,380,003 versus the Daily Express figure of 926,348.

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