Dirty Des bows out
As Trinity Mirror prepares to buy the Express and Star titles, William Kane looks at the state of the press
Richard Desmond: selling out
One almost pities the Daily Express, Daily Star and their Sunday sisters for the sheer lack of notoriety they enjoy in society at large.
The Star is a perfectly vile tabloid. Its diatribes against ‘benefit scroungers’, asylum-seekers and so on are so virulent that its own journalists have been known to resign in protest. And yet it is not, somehow, TheSun; it is boycotted nowhere in our fair isle. The Express is Brexit-mad to the point of barely constrained violence, and certainly well beyond basic honesty. Yet it is not, somehow, the Daily Mail - never allowed to forget its fascist past and vehemently pilloried by liberal opinion. The Express is a poor cousin; it tries too hard.
The mooted sale of all four titles to Trinity Mirror is, of course, an eye-opener. The latter organisation shares its name with its flagship title, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, although it is an increasingly vast and anonymous empire with many local papers in its portfolio. The swivel-eyed rightism of the Express and Star will make for odd stablemates - which raises the question of what exactly will become of them under the new owners, if the deal goes through.
The deal will also see the end of Richard Desmond’s colourful career as a publishing mogul. Britain’s press barons are a weird old crew - from The DailyTelegraph’s Barclay brothers, who own their own Channel Island, to the oligarch and tireless self-promoter, Evgeny Lebedev of the Evening Standard and the online-only The Independent, to the big man, Rupert Murdoch himself, who should need no introduction to readers of a communist weekly. Desmond stands out as the slimiest of the slimeballs, a narcissist and a pornographer, and - on the account of seemingly everyone who has ever worked for him - a vicious bully to boot. (He denies that he ever locked people in cupboards, but ex-employees keep claiming otherwise - on the record.)
He made his entry into the newspaper trade in 2000, and found himself immediately a cause of scandal simply on the question of whether a man of his particular character was ‘fit and proper’ to run a national newspaper. (For some reason, the British establishment, decades after selling The Times to Rupert Murdoch, still claims to have standards on this point.) Desmond’s response was to go, like the mountain, to Muhammad - in this connection, Tony Blair - and offer to take the Express papers in a Labour-supporting direction. Thus the publisher of Asian Babes and Spunk Loving Sluts began to launder his business interests, although he would not drop the last of his porn interests for some time thereafter.
More eye-catching even than Asian Babes is Desmond’s bizarre run-in with the New York mafia. In 1992, he met with Norman Chanes and Ricky Martino of the Gambino organisation, after which the mobsters agreed to purchase adverts for their phone sex lines in Desmond’s skin-mags. Desmond denies to this day that he knew of their connections, but found out soon enough, when it transpired that the circulation figures advertised to Chanes and Martino were grossly exaggerated, and the return on their investment was diddly-squat. In revenge, the Mafiosi beat seven hells out of Desmond’s then consigliere, Philip Bailey. They eventually succeeded in extorting £2 million out of Desmond, who had to hire bodyguards; the money was delivered in crisp £20 notes to Gambino representatives at a Soho restaurant.1
As a proprietor, Desmond’s tenure has been characterised by extreme parasitism. All individual newspaper proprietors sit on a spectrum between the pure profit motive and the desire to increase their influence and prestige; Desmond is one of the furthest positioned towards the former. His employees have only recently escaped an eight-year pay freeze. The editorial floor has lost 40% of its net headcount over his tenure. Meanwhile - even before the sale is finalised - Desmond has made £150 million out of it. One is reminded of Philip Green and BHS - the fashion tycoon managed to bleed over £500 million in dividends out of the ailing retailer, before selling it on to a serial bankrupt on the eve of the collapse of its pension fund. In Desmond’s case, he seems never to have very much believed that the newspapers he runs have much of a future; profit is guaranteed by naked editorial pandering and by running as lean a ship as possible.
Desmond has simultaneously enjoyed his public image as the hard man of Fleet Street and robustly defended his reputation - with litigation, when things got too out-of-hand. Tom Bower, the muckraking biographer, completed his account of Desmond’s rise in 2006; it was even printed, but never published. So far as politics is concerned, he is a little harder to parse. The dealings with Blair have a very transactional smell to them, possibly more on account of Blair’s involvement than his, although it is not clear what exactly he got in return. Less so his substantial donations to the UK Independence Party, which rather reek of a man, in the American phrase, who has drunk a little too much of his own Kool-Aid.
We expect he will get more than a Philip Green-style £1 for his papers from Trinity Mirror; so what does the latter get in return? The Star is declining rapidly enough, and is a direct competitor to the Mirror itself; it is surely destined for the dumpster. With the Express, however, Trinity Mirror is buying itself into a fresh segment of the newspaper market - the so-called ‘mid-market papers’, which includes only the Express titles and their larger rivals, the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday.
Their audience is predominantly petty bourgeois and greying, and both stables have come to ruthlessly pander to - and reinforce - the most popular prejudices among their target demographic. Paul Dacre of the Mail has built a career on his supposedly instinctive understanding of the fears of his readership; Desmond imposed a similar regime at the Express title, focus-grouping editorial policy and, if anything, skirting even closer to outright slander than its notorious rivals (it was the Express, for example, that continued to run with conspiracy theories about Princess Diana and Madeleine McCann long after their sell-by dates).
The question then arises as to whether Trinity Mirror could take the two papers to the left; and, on one level, of course they could. It would hardly be possible to take them to the right, after all; and papers can flip their political alignments if need be (as indeed happened with TheSun, which was originally a labour-movement paper, the Daily Herald). The other option would be to leave the Express more or less as it is - maybe toning down the most Dunkirkian of the Brexiteer rants - shut down the Star and move the Mirror to the right. There is no reason at all why the Mirror should always support Labour - after all, in the 1930s, it was even more enthusiastic than the Mail about Mosley’s Blackshirts (both at the time were owned by Harold Harmsworth).
This, in the end, is a calculation, made in a context of declining circulation and revenue of print newspapers (a decline all too often mistaken for imminent death). Indeed, we have been harsh on Dirty Desmond, but we should not pretend that he is uniquely a devil in an industry otherwise represented by angels. In truth, Desmond is not an aberration, but rather a sort of supererogatory, pure Platonic essence of the newspaper proprietor. He is known for his tangles with organised crime, but crime does not get much better organised than the phone-hacking at the Murdoch papers (and, lest we forget, the Mirror). He is known as a pornographer, but the Mail has the smuttier website, thanks to the notorious ‘side-bar of shame’ (by such means does Mail Online maintain its crown as the most visited news website in the world). He is a bully, in an industry built by swaggering macho barons. He is cynical and ruthlessly exploitative in his pursuit of profits; and so is the more ‘corporate’ outfit about to take his print interests off his hands.
None of Desmond’s vices are remotely unique to him: he merely embodies them in archetype, and fails to conceal his viciousness even to the minimal degree of his rivals. Desmond’s short career as a newspaper publisher will probably not be remembered too keenly - his was not one of the great historic media empires, even at its peak. Yet you could almost learn more from it than any of the others. Richard Desmond is Rupert Murdoch’s true face.
1. See Private Eye’s review of Desmond’s autobiography, The real deal, June 26 2015.