Richard Littlejohn, pin-up boy of liberal columnists nationwide, shows Ian Reeves some of the unpredictability that has helped make him the Rambo of the written word
THREE QUARTERS OF an hour into our interview Richard Littlejohn makes his most sensational claim.
Not the one about the Left being responsible for the BNP. Or the one about him being a big fan of the police force. Not even the one about the Mail’s notorious enforcer Martin Clarke being "sensitive".
No, the one that stops me in my tracks is about The Guardian. "I like Alan Rusbridger," he says, bold as you like. "I think it’s a terrific product for its market."
Steady on, Richard. Isn’t this the paper whose readers you regularly berate as a smug, self-selecting metropolitan elite?
But that unpredictability is one of the things that has helped make Littlejohn — one of that elite bunch whose byline requires no first name — the success that he undoubtedly is. Just when you think you’re pushing a nuclear button, out he comes with the assertion that his bête noir is "brilliantly tailored and they’ve got some class acts in there. Jonathan Freedland’s a great writer.
Gary Younge is very good and often interesting."
Certainly he makes a virtue of the fact that nobody should necessarily be able to second guess the views of a columnist on any one issue. He indicates an example from his own column the previous week, in which he defended the police for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes last July as an "understandable case of mistaken identity".
In this, he admits, his mailbag is running around nine-to-one against him. "That’s fine. The way it should be. I’m a free spirit, I’m an independent thinker and I’m not afraid to speak my mind and there’s too little of that about these days. The easy thing to do is to tell people what they want to hear.
It’s not about Right and Left, it’s about right and wrong. Different people have different views about what’s right and what’s wrong."
With his own unbridled views of what’s right and what’s wrong, Littlejohn has established an unstoppable juggernaut of a one-man brand.
Admired and despised in more or less equal measure, he is almost certainly the highest-paid columnist in the country. He has had his own chat shows on radio and satellite television. Last year editors of the two biggest-selling dailies almost ended up in court as they fought over his contract and he was named as one of the 40 most influential figures in the past four decades of national newspaper journalism in Press Gazette’s Hall of Fame. Yet it’s a measure of the emotions that he inspires, particularly over his columns on race and sex, that at the Hall of Fame event, attended by the great and the good of the industry, an unknown guest scribbled the word "scum" on a piece of paper and stuck it on his portrait.
Raising hackles, of course, is precisely the point of what he does.
Does his image, his reputation, bother him?
"There’s no point complaining about it; it’s just something that you have to live with. A lot of people have a view of who I am and what I am, based on something they’ve read in The Independent or The Guardian. It becomes received wisdom, gets recycled.
If that’s what people want to think, then tough shit."
And what does he think that image is?
"Oh, BNP, racist, homophobe. You get all the usual shite. The fact of the matter is that long before Paxman took [BNP chairman] Nick Griffin apart, I had him on for an hour on my show and slaughtered him. Yet Aaronovitch and the rest of that lot in The Guardian cannot mention my name without trying to slip "BNP recruiting sergeant"
somewhere in there. It’s basically when they lose the argument that they resort to abuse.
"There was a Polly Toynbee column after Soham that said ‘typically, Richard Littlejohn was the first one to call for bringing back the rope’. If she had read the piece, which she won’t have done because it wouldn’t have conformed with her own prejudices, she might have seen that I said there is an argument for this. Maybe we should have a debate, maybe we should put it to a vote — but if we did I would still argue against it and vote against it.
"But you see, if it doesn’t fit in with their preconceptions they’ll make it up. The Left do lie as a matter of routine. There’s no point grumbling about it, there is nothing you can do about it.
"I think there is also another section of the public who rather like me, who think I’m honest. I’m not full of shit."
He has become well practised at dismissing those labels. He’s the "homophobe" who is all in favour of gay marriage, he says. The "racist" who supported Sir Trevor Phillips to be London mayor. The "BNP supporter" who always describes the party as knuckledragging scum.
To add to his defiance of stereotype is the eyebrow-raising fact that he once nearly stood as a Labour MP. Back in the mid-80s, in his time as industrial correspondent for the Birmingham Evening Mail and later the Evening Standard, he had close ties to what he calls the old industrial right of the Labour Party — the big engineering unions. It was mooted that if he ever wanted a seat they could find him one. "It wasn’t anything that particularly appealed to me," he says now. But does he think he can make more difference as a columnist anyway?
"I don’t know if I make a difference. But I make more mischief as a columnist than I would as a backbench MP. I would have been too much of a maverick for anyone to consider me for high office."
What was also sowed at that time, though, were the seeds of his hatred for New Labour — or at least of its most prominent members, "Spivs like Mandelson" who took credit for changing the Labour party, when "all the spade work, all the heavy lifting"
was done by union activists. "These were the guys who put themselves on the line, sometimes physically, to wrest control of the Labour party back from the spacemen."
I ask him which way he will vote in the next election. He doesn’t know, except that it certainly won’t be Lib Dem because "there’s no point".
Is there any politician that has ever really impressed him? He thinks long and hard, but conspicuously refuses to come up with a name.
"Impressed isn’t necessarily the right word. There are a lot of people out there trying to do their best and not always succeeding in politics. And there are a lot of incompetent clots and a smaller number who are just purely evil.
"I don’t have many friends who are politicians. It is always amusing to read these profiles of me that described me as a Thatcherite cheerleader at The Sun in the 80s. I didn’t join The Sun until 1989 and the first columns I wrote were saying ‘Thatcher’s gone mad and its time they took her away’."
Still, he adds that a lot of what she did was necessary and right, even though he could see the short-term effect her policies had on some communities.
I ask him to describe his politics.
He doesn’t buy any ticket, he says, and tries to have an individual opinion on every individual subject as it occurs. For too many people, he reckons, if they tell him what they think on one issue he’ll be able to predict what they think about everything. "If they’re pro-abortion, they’re probably pro-cannabis and, of course, they’ll be against hanging — and so it goes on. I think a lot of people, particularly on the Left, sign up for a ticket because it’s easy. No one is ever going to challenge your opinions if you go along with the bien-pensant view of the world. Everyone will think ‘oh what a compassionate and kind person’
and you don’t need to think it through.
"You’re doing more damage to the BNP denouncing them in The Sun than you are in The Independent, which nobody reads. But what they can’t see, these people who call themselves liberals, is that by shutting down debate and smearing everybody as a racist or some sort of swivel-eyed BNP nutter for attempting to present a different opinion to the one which is presented by the liberal intelligentsia, is that they create monsters like Griffin because people think that they have nowhere else to turn. They’re responsible. The Left are responsible for the BNP. Every action has a very equal and opposite reaction. In some ways there is very little difference between the BNP and the Left.
They’re all fascists. Theirs is the one true path, theirs is the one true light. If you don’t buy the whole of their agenda you’re a Nazi."
Does he think there is a line to be drawn with freedom of speech? "Yeah," he says. "You don’t start a fire in a crowded theatre. You don’t have to be gratuitously offensive — you can just be offensive and still get a laugh." He recounts a recent conversation with associate editor Martin Clarke over a column in which Littlejohn had wanted to satirise an imagined Today interview between Jim Naughtie and Harold Shipman. They agreed this would be too "sensitive" — since families of the victims are still suffering. Likewise Fred West.
Eventually they settled on Jack the Ripper.
He doesn’t like targeting or insulting ordinary people — which is why his targets are almost always public figures. "If you look back, you’ll find I’ve never knowingly monstered ‘civilians’."
Later I call to ask his take on the outcry over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Again he confounds expectation. Instead of giving a passionate advocation of the right to publish controversial images, he says: "Do you want to artificially start a row simply in the name of freedom of speech?
"This isn’t a freedom of speech debate — it’s about the bigger question of a threat to British values by fundamentalist Islam. And the nutters responsible for that will seize on anything to further their agenda. It just happened that it was some hapless cartoonist in Denmark.
"The question is, is it funny? If it was funny and if it was valid, then no newspaper — no British newspaper — should refuse to print it because they fear reprisals from Islam Nazis. But then you shouldn’t just stick it in to provoke a fight if there’s no real purpose to it."
Littlejohn’s first break as a named columnist came at the Evening Standard, when Hunter Davies took a holiday and various writers were asked to have a go at filling in. Littlejohn’s piece made the paper and he never really stopped. "They said just do another one old boy." He later asked editor John Leese why his had been chosen and was told it was the only piece that had a recognisable "voice".
"That is the thing. With good columnists you don’t need to put the byline on it. You know it’s Clarkson, you know it’s Gill, you know it’s Keith Waterhouse. It’s a difficult discipline. I’ve always said that everyone has one column in them and some people even have got as many as two, but after that it tends to tail off a bit.
"I’m no John Kay. I couldn’t do what Ann Leslie does, what someone like Janine di Giovanni does.
All of these people, they’re brilliant reporters. You sit down and you read 2,000 words of Geoff Levy and its just spot on, it tells you everything you needed to know. It’s forensic, it’s beautifully crafted. I can’t do that. Other people have got different skills."
Fortunately for Littlejohn, his skill is one that is the most highly prized. A Mail source says his copy tends to be handled "with kid gloves — every crossed-t goes through the execs". Martin Clarke even handles his copy from Ireland when he’s there.
Littlejohn himself rarely goes into newspaper offices these days — he doesn’t attend news conference.
"Have laptop won’t travel. I only went to Wapping about a dozen times in 13 years — hated the place."
The Mail rumour mill puts his fee at £900,000 — although some say this is a wildly high estimate.
Shrewdly enough, he’s not going to dispel it. I wonder if he thinks other journalists value the art as much as the editors seem to. He’s not sure about that. Or about how many readers columnists actually bring in with them. "It’s always been gratifying to me when people say ‘we only bought The Sun on Tuesdays and Fridays because of you’. And it’s been terrific getting back to the Mail and meeting people who say ‘we saw your face on the cover, we’re now going to start reading the Mail’, which is good.0That’s all anecdotal, I don’t know how you would quantify all of that.
"What I do think columnists do is to lock you in on a product. The sad decline of the Daily Mirror… began when Keith [Waterhouse] went to the Mail, when Anne Robinson left, when they sacked Paul Foot. It doesn’t matter whether you liked any of these writers or not. They were very much part of the DNA of the product. And once they’re gone you have another reason not to buy the paper."
He adds that there are too many columnists on some serious papers, all arguing with each other and writing for each other rather than the people who pay their wages, the readers.
I ask if there’s any danger of him mellowing as he gets older. "I thought I had," he laughs. But is it really a danger, given his line of work?
"I don’t know. I’ve said having a column is what stops me from roaming in the streets firing a Kalashnikov at random. But while there are so many fuckwits in the world and prod-noses I’m never going to run out of material am I?
"I’ve always thought there must be some department in Whitehall whose job it is to come in on a Monday morning and think ‘well what are we going to get Littlejohn to write about this week?’
"Long may it continue."