Nicknamed Richard ‘Dirty’ Desmond by fortnightly hypocrisy detector Private Eye, the Northern & Shell chief – and owner of the Daily Express and Daily Star – kindles strong feelings in those who believe the press should be a bastion of truth and integrity. But on 12 January, the spotlight-shy proprietor was handed a chance to give a decent account of himself at the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. In an afternoon session focusing on his management of the papers since Northern & Shell bought the Express Group in November 2000, Desmond’s answers to Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC began in a cheeky vein, but with sparks of promise on managerial competence.
As he continued, though, he more and more showed himself to be miscast in the newspaper business, with a poor grasp of its subtleties and wider effects.
Early in the session, Desmond took visible pleasure in explaining the reasons behind his overhaul of the Express Group, and the steps he was forced to take to turn its fortunes around. “I remember comments from editorial people like, ‘What are you talking about? The Express is like roast beef, it will be there forever – it’s part of the history of Britain’,” he said. “In the meantime, it was budgeted to lose £21m, and the Daily Star was selling around 400,000 copies a day – and one of the reasons why it was selling 400,000 copies a day is because it wasn’t being given enough money, particularly in the photographic area.”
That being the case, Northern & Shell reasoned that by putting more cash into the Daily Star – effectively helping it to become the Daily Celeb we all know and, in some cases, love – and sorting out all the ‘nonsense and grandism’ that surrounded the Express at the time, they could return the papers to profit. This effort was buttressed by a renewed surge on ad sales, providing the titles with a stable revenue stream.
The only way is ethics
There is absolutely nothing in either of the above two paragraphs to suggest that Desmond is wide of the mark as a businessman. He comes across as someone who was doing his job as a corporate leader: storming to the rescue of an ailing husk of a company, taking it on as a going concern rather than asset stripping it – and putting the lead back into its editorial pencil. As for his work ethic, he impressed with his recollection of an answer he gave to a senior Express manager at the start of his proprietorship who was brave enough to ask him how often he’d be coming in. “Mate,” Desmond told him, “I’ve just written out every penny in the world I have, plus mortgaged the company up, plus mortgaged myself up… I’m going to be here every day from seven o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock every night, seven days a week.”
But there were crucial contradictions in other parts of his testimony.
Well, ethical, I don’t quite know what the word means…Richard Desmond, Leveson Inquiry transcript
“You have to live and breathe these things, and you have to understand the business,” he told Jay, giving a convincing impression of a man who believes in keeping track of all the important minutiae that really make newspapers tick. “I think a lot of these other groups don’t really understand that it is a business, and, you know, there’s more to life than [having a] chess correspondent based in Latin America.”
Fair enough. Later on, though, he admits that once his knees were under the table at the Express and Peter Hill was working as editor, he pretty much left Hill to his own devices. And, pressed on part of his initial written statement in which he said “we don’t talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line”, the best Desmond could offer was a reiteration of the point, along with the opaque verbal shrug: “everybody’s ethics are different”.
Out of fairness, Jay quoted another part of the written statement, in which Desmond had said: “We do, of course, care about the title’s reputation and so would not run a story if we thought it would damage that or seriously affect someone’s life.” Asking Desmond whether he viewed this as an ethical consideration, the proprietor said “of course” – perhaps seeing an early chance to keep a clean sheet. But this stab at respectability was comprehensively undone by subsequent remarks, in which Desmond defended a slew of stories on Kate and Gerry McCann – 38 of which were successfully litigated on defamation grounds – as useful for keeping the search for their daughter Madeleine in the spotlight.
An already exasperated Jay was left even more so by Desmond’s contention that the PCC, or Press Complaints Commission, should be replaced by an RCD, or Richard Clive Desmond, if the newspaper industry wants a more effective watchdog. This, from an individual who cut his newspapers’ ties with the PCC early last year – choosing to operate entirely outside his industry’s ethical framework, however woolly it has proven to be – and presided over the publication of more than three-dozen defamatory items about the McCanns.
One can only wonder how he would fare on a basic journalism-training course.
When it comes to the big picture of financial control and efficiencies, Desmond is clearly a high-performance player. But as a newspaperman, he is Arnold Schwarzenegger doing ballet.
Richard Desmond’s full testimony to the Leveson Inquiry can be found here
What do you think?
How did coverage of Richard Desmond’s Leveson session come across for you? Let us know below…