Newspaper headlines: Crash mystery, Clarkson exit and a chicken scare

The paper editions of Thursday's national papers printed too early to carry the claims - first printed in the New York Times - that one of the pilots of the Germanwings passenger jet that crashed in France had been locked out of the cabin and was pounding the door trying to gain entry.

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The evidence, which an unnamed official said had been retrieved from the damaged cockpit voice recorder recovered from the crash site in the Alps, is the latest piece of evidence in a mystery which has investigators "baffled", according to the Times.

The paper says experts think they are "no closer" to being able to explain what caused flight 9525 make a catastrophic 8-minute plunge into a mountainside than they were on Tuesday.

It adds the search for the plane's missing flight data recorder continues, on mountain slopes littered with tiny pieces of debris.

In a grim dispatch from the scene, the paper's Adam Sage says the cliffs and ravines are now speckled with red flags where searchers have found body parts. The recovery of the 150 dead, and their identification, is expected to take weeks.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel visited the crash site and met grieving relatives on Wednesday at a makeshift mortuary.

Sage reports that the French president said he was "struck by emotion" and that psychological help would be given to those working in the area.

"The tone of his voice and the blank stare of Mrs Merkel beside him, suggested that he was being truthful.

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Image caption President Hollande and German chancellor Merkel looked tense after visiting the crash scene

"These hardened political leaders looked genuinely troubled by what they had witnessed high in the Alps," the writer adds.

The Daily Mail reports that police are stationed at the crash site overnight to deter wolves and other scavengers.

It says search teams are often roped together to scour the perilous mountain face for clues.

The Independent's Cahal Milmo interviews Gilles Thezan, a local man who was one of the first on the scene of the crash.

"There was no smoke, hardly even an explosion. It was like a thunderclap in a place that its very quiet and very wild. It is not something you forget," he tells Milmo.

"It is a very disturbing sight, so many lives ended in a space that you would miss if you didn't know you were looking for it."

'Moment of madness'

Many thousands of gallons of ink are expended in the papers reporting the enforced departure of long-running Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson following a "fracas" in which he punched a producer.

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Image caption A petition with a million signatures, calling for Clarkson to stay as Top Gear presenter was delivered to the BBC

For full details of the "unsavoury incident" which precipitated the non-renewal of the 54-year-old's BBC contract see the Daily Mail.

The paper says events involved a two-hour visit to a pub near the Top Gear studio in Surrey while a helicopter waited to take Clarkson and his fellow presenters to North Yorkshire; rose wine and a bad-tempered exchange at the hotel, where the programme had booked 10 rooms at £5,760; a steak cooked by the hotel's manager after the chef had departed,; and the now-famous "30-second physical assault" on producer Oisin Tymon which left him with a split lip.

The Times says the show's other stars - James May and Richard Hammond - are "set to desert the BBC" after Director General Lord Hall announced with "great regret" that the corporation would be letting Clarkson go.

The paper quotes an anonymous friend of Clarkson who says, "The BBC are trying to portray it as a really savage attack, but really it was just a moment of madness.

"It wasn't about food and was no worse than 20 incidents you might find at a rugby match."

The Sun's opinion column agrees, saying that the presenter did "a bad thing" but "such bust-ups happen on TV and movie sets occasionally and we rarely hear about them because they're kept quiet.

"Left-wing BBC executives, already itching to rid themselves of someone so politically incorrect, pounced on [the fracas] and turned it into an international incident."

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Image caption Rival broadcasters are thought to be keen to sign Clarkson up, the papers report

The Daily Telegraph also detects a political bias, saying in its leader column "The loss of the BBC's last big right-wing personality will only compound the popular image of a corporation dominated by the metropolitan left."

The Mirror dissents from this view. Its opinion column says, "Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon would have been fired if he had split Jeremy Clarkson's lip, threatened to have him sacked and shouted obscenities at him.

"Clarkson did all those things so the violent bully should stop regarding himself as a victim and issue an abject apology - he is the author of his own car crash."

In the Financial Times' Lombard column Jonathan Guthrie writes that he can imagine a new Top Gear line-up of "Polly Toynbee, Peter Tatchell and Shami Chakrabarti joylessly test driving eco-friendly runabouts for the low-waged."

But he adds: ""Most organisations sooner or later have to decide whether to dump a maverick who contributes notably to their success, whether he is a bond trader, deal lawyer or machine tool salesman.

"The Beeb, thanks to blanket publicity for Mr Clarkson's meltdown, had no choice but to let him go."

'Eve-of-election pledges'

Wednesday marked the last Prime Minister's Questions of the current Parliament, and depending on which flavour of newspaper you read Ed Miliband either blundered into "an elephant trap" set by David Cameron around VAT, or he forced the prime minister to pledge that he wouldn't raise the tax if he were re-elected.

The Daily Telegraph is in the "elephant trap" camp, saying that Mr Cameron "wrong-footed" the Labour leader by answering "Yes" when asked if he would freeze the VAT level.

The paper reports: "Tory sources said that they had intentionally set a trap for the Labour leader on Tuesday when George Osborne five times refused to rule out a VAT increase when he appeared before the Treasury select committee in the hope that Mr Miliband would lead on the issue at Prime Minister's Questions."

The Daily Express says the direct response by Mr Cameron has put an end to "desperate scaremongering" by Labour over the possibility of a rise.

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Image caption "End of season spectacular at the palace of varieties" says the Guardian

"Labour aides are now thought to be pulping thousands of leaflets accusing the Tories of planning this hike," its editorial continues.

The Independent's cartoon casts doubt on whether Mr Cameron will come good on his pledge.

The PM is seen with a Pinocchio-style nose marked No VAT Rise, while his pants - marked with various policy statements including "balance books by 2015" and "No child benefit cuts" - are on fire.

The Daily Mirror says Mr Cameron is a "slippery tax-raiser" who must be challenged to rule out a rise in National Insurance.

"[He] has a cheek to call increases in NI a Labour jobs tax when he put it up in 2010," its editorial adds.

The Guardian says that away from Westminster, the public will not be taken in by PMQ theatrics.

"Few will have caught this end-of-the-season spectacular at the palace of varieties, and fewer still will have swallowed the eve-of-election pledges made," its leader column says.

But it adds that by ruling out VAT rises (and Labour's corresponding promise to leave NI untouched), the party leaders "have cowed each other into declaring nearly half the tax base off limits".

The result will be a post election chancellor will have to "weasel out" of the pledges, or pursue a course that leads to "public squalor".

'A concern'

In its front page story the Daily Mail alleges that Britain's supermarkets are "covering up" the prevalence of a potentially lethal food poisoning bug on raw chicken.

The paper says 19% of birds sold in the UK have "dangerously high" levels of campylobacter contamination, and the Food Standards Agency says this level must be reduced to below 10% by the year's end.

The Mail says the big retailers are blocking plans to reduce the bug - which costs the UK £900m a year in missed work days and NHS costs.

"Only M&S has given the FSA details of its comprehensive plan to tackle campylobacter, which involves changes on farms and in slaughterhouses," the paper says.

Professor Paul Wiles of the Agency said the industry's response had been "unacceptable".

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium denies supermarkets are burying their heads in the sand and says their experts regularly meet the FSA to draw up campylobacter reduction strategies.

In another food safety story, the Independent leads on fears that public safety will be compromised by the sale of the government's Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) to the outsourcing firm Capita.

Fera, which led the efforts to identify horsemeat in the UK food chain, is now expected to concentrate on commercial work.

Expert Prof Tim Land, a government adviser, says: "No one will pay for evidence about food and biodiversity, or food and pesticide residues.

"There's no profit in that. In fact, there's more profit in not having it. There's an absolute incentive not to have public-interest research about these areas. And that's a concern."

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