There is a special joyous savagery that overcomes British writers when they aim their pens at each other. A cat fight would look like the Ascot gavotte by comparison.

Now, the art form has been imported and is available in the Dec. 28 issue of The New Republic and the Jan. 2 issue of The Nation -- courtesy of British expatriates Henry Fairlie and Alexander Cockburn.

Fairlie, an author and New Republic contributing editor, launched the first ink pot when he reviewed Cockburn's new collection of columns, "Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies & the Reagan Era."

After accusing Cockburn's father, the late Claude Cockburn, of sending reports to The Times of London that "were total fabrications," Fairlie writes that the son is "representative of a certain variety of British malcontent and expatriate (usually of the left) who, already disagreeably at odds with his own country but unable to impress it with his ill-humor, sets off to find some other country in which he may more easily indulge his bile."

He chides Cockburn for contributing columns to House and Garden "like a good radical."

Or: "He writes for a coterie, he feeds the yawns at Elaine's."

Or: "Cockburn has lived in and off America for 15 years, yet even the pieces of this volume that pretend to describe American society speak only of someone who never met an American."

Or: "If anything is clear from this collection, it is Cockburn's comfort with the right wing in power, and the further to the right the better, because then the world is simple and the extremist looks brilliant, and everything is easier to criticize."

Cockburn, who was media critic for The Village Voice and writes a column for The Nation and The Wall Street Journal, lobbed back with one long paragraph in his Nation column, the crucial parts of which are the following:

"The instrument -- useful idiot, as conservatives would say -- of New Republic owner Martin Peretz's longstanding displeasure with me was in this case Henry Fairlie, a bibulous British derelict and self-styled Tory who refined his craft as a hack for hire in an earlier spell working for the notably vile press tycoon Lord Beaverbrook."

And: "He is in every sense Peretz's creature, since he has actually been living at The New Republic offices, sustaining himself, so long-suffering staff members assert, off the sale of review copies and handouts from Peretz, whose patronage of the indigent Fairlie displays evidence of humanity otherwise invisible in the man."

And: "The dispassionate tone of the review was set in the first two paragraphs, which I happened to read on the sixth anniversary of my father's death and which claimed without the slightest foundation in fact that he had sent deliberately false dispatches to The Times of London while serving as its U.S. correspondent in the late 1920s."

Alas, New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley said yesterday that he had no plans to have Fairlie or anyone else answer Cockburn in an upcoming issue. Fairlie, who says he and boss Peretz have indulged in some intellectual exchanges that border on shouting matches, said of Cockburn: "He's got the whole idea very exaggerated."

While a nasty debate by American standards, it is still far more civilized than a libel suit. And less expensive.

Spy, on the Mark With Hart

Who says everybody was surprised about Gary Hart?

Spy magazine, the purveyor of wicked, gossipy New York humor that is one good reason not to be rich or famous, hit it right on the nose in its November issue.

In its campaign calendar, sponsored by a famous brand of scotch, the magazine predicted the following:

"December 15: Confessed adulterer Gary Hart reenters the race 'for the good of the nation.' "

Although Hart did indeed reenter on December 15, hold the applause. Here's the next line in the magazine:

"December 21: Confessed adulterer Gary Hart withdraws, saying he wants to spend Christmas with his family." Financial Reporters Surveyed

A small newsletter that analyzes the financial news community, The Journalist and Financial Reporting, has sent out a questionnaire to 1,000 financial journalists, and the results could shake the myth about business reporters as a group of yuppie Republicans who are still in mourning over the conviction of Ivan Boesky.

Dean Rotbart, editor of TJFR, as the vigorous young newsletter is called, says that of 150 responses so far, the group tends to be an average of 35 years old and mostly Democratic.

"Let's put it this way. These are not the people who are writing the editorials for The Wall Street Journal," said Rotbart, who has run the newsletter since April.

They make about $50,000 a year (this averages in salaries of reporters from newspapers outside New York and Washington), and their investments total more than $3 million.

"One of the things about this that will surprise outsiders is how well paid and how much investable income these journalists have," said Rotbart. "Most have from $60,000 to $100,000 in the stock market. I don't think that on its face there is anything unethical about that; it depends on how the news organization monitors it."

Because the questionnaire asks for the name of the news organization but not the name of the person filling it out, some of the questions are touchy: For example, in the True or False section, respondents are asked, "At least once in my career I have fabricated a quote or a source." And, "I like most of the editors with whom I work." Rotbart called the results "very interesting," but said he wanted to save them for future issues.

One magazine journalist left his copy of the questionnaire blank except for a question he had added on his own. It said, "I do not wish to remain employed by my present employer," and it was followed by the words "true" and "false." "False" had a large circle around it.