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Thursday, July 23, 2009 

The rise and fall of Richard Desmond.

In the world of catastrophic legal cases, Richard Desmond's humiliation in the High Court must rank up there amongst the very top. Last year's disaster for the News of the World at the hands of Max Mosley seems to be the only really apposite comparison, but the key difference is that was a case brought by Mosley; here Desmond has brought the entire thing upon himself.

Quite why Desmond brought what was such a trivial claim for libel against Tom Bower remains unclear. Bower's QC, Ronald Thwaites, who has somewhat acquitted himself after his disgraceful performance representing the Met at the Jean Charles de Menezes health and safety prosecution, said in court that the real reason was because Desmond's ego couldn't allow him to described as a wimp, "ground into the dust" by Black, even if it was in a book that was unlikely to be read by many in a passage that was hardly remarkable. Others however believe the real reason was to ensure that Bower never had a chance of publishing a supposedly finished manuscript on Desmond himself, provisionally titled Rogue Trader. If it's as damning as Bower's other works, and when you have such a target it's hardly likely not to be, Desmond has far more to fear from that than from claims that Conrad Black had "ground him into the dust".

Surely the only thing that ensured Desmond had anything approaching a chance of victory was our ridiculous and damaging libel laws, where the defendant has to prove their case rather than the accuser theirs. Everyone in the media world knows how Desmond operates: he is a bully, a born liar and someone who surrounds himself only with sycophants and those he has total trust in. Only someone with a personality like Desmond, where the slightest insult can result in a feud lasting for years, could be thin-skinned enough to take offence at being described as a pornographer. Desmond made his money in softcore pornographic magazines, having obtained the licence to publish Penthouse in the UK in 1983. From there he built an empire thanks to his diversifying into most of the more acceptable fetishes, with among his more famous titles the likes of Asian Babes and Skin and Wriggly. This led inevitably to satellite and cable channels broadcasting much the same content, although his channels show the softcore variants of the produced smut; whether he actually owns the companies which produce the hardcore versions is unclear.

For a man who yearns for respectability and to take his rightful place amongst the establishment, owning wank rags and jazz channels is usually a no-no. While decidedly last century, one way to acquire that sort of status is to purchase a newspaper, and while the Daily Star is hardly what most would describe as an educational read, and the Daily Express has been in decline for half a century, his purchase of both ensured that he had finally entered the world of not just business but also political power. Some of course at the time questioned whether such a man should own a newspaper which used to be the biggest seller in the world; happily, a donation by Desmond of £100,000 to the Labour party ensured that no obstacles were placed in his way.

Desmond has since behaved exactly as you would expect a man of his stature to: he has made hundreds of journalists redundant from both papers, turned them even more than they already were into celebrity rags with a side-serving of news, the majority of which is inflammatory and bordering on the openly racist, and paid himself vast sums of money in the process, anything up to £50m a year.

Most modern proprietors of newspapers, like Desmond, deny that they would ever influence anything which their employees write, let alone tell them what to. In court, Desmond's QC Ian Winter said that it was "difficult to think of a more defamatory allegation to make". Most proprietors of course don't have to tell their journalists what to write, for the simple fact that they already know how they think, what their interests are and how to defend them, as Rupert Murdoch's editors do, although Murdoch at least admits that the Sun and News of the World's editorial line is directly influenced by him. Desmond, while also using that kind of influence in the newsroom, is both more brutal and direct. David Hellier, a former media editor on the Sunday Express, described how Desmond was seen in the newsroom "virtually every day between five and seven o'clock" and would regularly demand editorial changes. Any casual reader of Private Eye will have noted down the years Desmond's regular appearances in the Street of Shame, often ordering journalists around and insulting them on their appearance. One more memorable episode was when Desmond apparently told Express editor Peter Hill that his current front page was "fucking shit". Hill, fed up with Desmond's constant interference, finally lost his temper and left, leaving the deputy to redo the paper. Most notoriously, Desmond punched the Express's then night editor, Ted Young, in the stomach after his failure to run an article on the death of an obscure 60's musician. Desmond settled with Young the day before the case was due to go to an industrial tribunal for a six figure sum. Young was prevented from giving evidence in the High Court by Justice Eady, but thankfully his testimony was not needed.

Perhaps the most damning evidence however was given by the person who wrote the offending article which led Black to sue Desmond and consequently "ground him into the dust". Anil Bhoyrul, one of the former Mirror journalists involved in the Viglen shares debacle which was another stain on Piers Morgan's character, wrote the "Media Uncovered" column in the Sunday Express between 2001 and 2003 under the pseudonym Frank Daly. Despite supposedly being a witness for Desmond, Bhoyrul made clear that he was directly influenced in what he wrote by what Desmond "liked and disliked", which was made clear to him by the editor Martin Townsend in phone calls on a Tuesday. Bhoyrul boasted of how he "got a pretty good feel for who, you know, to be positive about and who to be negative about. The impression I got over time was that Conrad Black and Richard Desmond were not the best of friends." Bhoyrul was hardly exaggerating: he wrote around 27 hostile pieces about Black, and attacked the owner of the Independent, Tony O'Reilly, in much the same fashion when Desmond was in dispute with him.

Then there was just the sort of in the public domain knowledge which made Desmond look like an idiot. Three days after Desmond had threatened a business contact down the phone, telling him "[he'd] be the worst fucking enemy you'll ever have", the Sunday Express ran a defamatory article about the contact and his hedge fund, Pentagon Capital Management. When Desmond had to settle the libel claim from Pentagon, a statement was read out in open court that "Mr Desmond accepts that it was his comments in the presence of Sunday Express journalists that prompted the Sunday Express to publish the article." Yet Desmond denied when questioned by Thwaites that he had complained to the editor about his predicament, or in front of the journalists. Unless Desmond was committing perjury, he presumably only agreed to that statement in the libel settlement to get it over with.

Whether in the long run much will come of Desmond's humiliation, apart from the possible publication of Bower's biography, is difficult to tell. Undoubtedly his enemies at the Mail will tomorrow have a field day, as will the others that despise Desmond, but readers of his own papers would never know that he had even lost his claim. The article in the Express doesn't so much as mention it, merely setting out that Desmond "set the record straight", while even more mindboggling is his claim to that it was "worth it to stand up in court". Certainly, the estimated costs of the action, £1.25m, is only about a week's wages to Desmond, but to someone with his sensitivity to criticism and determination to be seen as a honest, generous, philanthropic businessman, he must be secretly devastated. Most damaging to Desmond though is certainly Roy Greenslade's conclusion that he is an even worse newspaper owner than Robert Maxwell was. Greenslade should know: he was Mirror editor under Maxwell (His book, Press Gang, is also a fine post-war history of the British press). Although Desmond has clearly not defrauded the Express in the way which Maxwell did Mirror group, he has stripped it of assets in a similar fashion. The Guardian describes how while Greenslade was giving his evidence, Desmond gripped the table in front of him tightly, while his wife asked whether he was OK. That might yet be nothing on what he does tomorrow when the papers quote Greenslade in an approving fashion.

(Other sources for this apart from the links include the latest Private Eye, 1241, and its report on the trial on page 9.)

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Geoffrey Archer and Oscar Wilde are the only libel plaintiffs I can think of who've done worse than that. At least, I don't *think* there's any chance of Desmond heading to jail...

Great piece. Made it all much clearer. thanks.

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