TELEVISION / Press for respect

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The Independent Culture
THE CHARGES against David Sullivan were grave. 'He's not a philanthropist,' said one Daily Star journalist who had worked at the paper during its brief power dive towards the gutter under Sullivan. 'Everything that David does he does to make money,' added another colleague darkly. Well, that's it then - he's obviously disqualified to be a respectable newspaper proprietor. That most ascetic and selfless body of men shouldn't be forced to rub shoulders with the businessman who gave the nation the headline ALIENS TURNED MY SON INTO AN OLIVE.

World In Action (ITV) was getting steamed up about the prospect of Sullivan going legit and examined his past enterprises closely to make a case that he had not changed his habits. Had the publisher of a newspaper which once famously reported that a World War Two bomber had been discovered on the Moon (and followed it up with the exclusive revelation that it had since disappeared) been as imaginative in his business practices as the reporters he employed?

On World In Action's account the eager punters who sent away for Sullivan's mail-order porn got rather less than they bargained for - those who breathlessly tore open the envelope containing 'Girls with Animals', for instance, found sedate Health and Efficiency photos of naked girls playing tennis while a golden retriever sat patiently in the background. A former manager of one of his sex-shops criticised his practice of buying the cheapest possible merchandise - 'the number of returned vibrators, marital aids, etc . . . ,' he recalled in exasperation, '. . . things that got rusty when they shouldn't'.

It's only fair to say that World In Action also presented evidence which suggested that Sullivan's self-publicised retirement from the sex-shop industry couldn't be taken entirely at face-value; his brother serves as a director of the company which now owns the chain and Sullivan's own property company, Conegate, holds many of the leases.

All the same it was a little difficult to see why these early activities should necessarily mean that he couldn't run a provincial or national newspaper as efficiently as the next magnate. Alongside Robert Maxwell, Sullivan cuts a decidedly unmenacing figure as a press baron. He has, in fact, recently launched a new regional newspaper, a publication aimed at the family. World In Action wasn't impressed by the promise of a 'Kiddies column' though.

'All the papers share the same building,' noted the voice-over balefully, as if nude pictures were contagious and would spread like a rash after a few weeks publication. This was both pious and naive. The fact is that if it suits Sullivan to keep his paper clean, it will stay clean and as he seems to hunger after respectability that's the most likely outcome. Still, he'd be wise not to hold his breath waiting for the Garrick Club tie.