Michael Heseltine: Journalists saved me from oblivion and helped build a global empire

It is 50 years since Michael Heseltine founded what is now the biggest privately-owned publishing company in Britain. Shirley Bassey sang at the anniversary party. The former Cabinet minister tells Ian Burrell of his future plans

In an era when political figures are apt to hold the "feral beasts" of the news media responsible for undermining the democratic process – and many of society's other ills - there is at least one elder statesman who positively admires journalists and the work they do.

Lord Heseltine likes the press not because they associated him in the public mind with film heartthrob Johnny Weissmuller by dubbing him 'Tarzan' and most certainly not for linking 'Hezza' to a one-time England football hero. The former cabinet minister has not forgotten the journalistic support he received during his brief time in the political wilderness.

"When I was on the back benches from 1986 to 1990, the journalists's world saved me from oblivion," he says. "They kept my name forward. Without any doubt the number ten machine would have had me buried for breakfast but they couldn't because the journalists wouldn't let them. They saw me as news and they saw I was saying something and they kept reporting me, even though their editors and proprietors didn't want them to do it, they kept doing it."

A Defence Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, before being cast out over the Westland helicopters affair, the oxygen of publicity he received on the backbenches helped him return to Government as Deputy Prime Minister under John Major. "They (journalists) play an important - indeed I would say indispensable - role in a free society. It's not comfortable but then the truth isn't always comfortable. They are there to feed people's appetite for knowledge and to provide the raw material on which to base their judgments."

Heseltine's gratitude to the press extends beyond his political career, for he has also built his business empire on journalism. Half a century after he began his publishing career with a deal struck in the back of a taxi to produce a jobs directory for students he now presides over a global enterprise that boasts 100 titles based in Britain and a further 80 overseas.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Haymarket, which Heseltine has built into the largest privately-owned publishing company in Britain, he threw an extravagant party at London's Grosvenor House hotel, with Shirley Bassey as the star attraction. The compere was Michael Parkinson, who in the 1960s edited the fashionable men's magazine Town, a title which also employed David bailey and Don McCullin and helped to establish the Haymarket line.

It is a mark of the company's current influence that the party was just one of four Haymarket events being staged at the Grosvenor House that week. "We are their biggest customer," says Heseltine.

The Haymarket portfolio could hardly be more diverse. Heseltine's love of the press industry is evidenced by ownership of such titles as Print Week and Printing World. The company has just bought a website called Press Exchange, which specialises in the sale of second hand printing equipment. Then there are the more sexy products such as the gadgets mag Stuff, the women's title Eve and football publication FourFourTwo. It also the leading publisher in the field of motorsport, with F1 Racing, which is published in 30 countries, being the largest motor racing magazine in the world.

Heseltine argues that his company enjoys pole position in the field because of its foresight in recognising the potential market. "We have had F1 Racing from before 1997, we've had Autosport since 1967 and Motorsport News for eight years. We have a very enthusiastic team of journalists who eat, dream and sleep motor racing so it was very understandable that they spotted the phenomenon of F1 Racing. We were ahead of the game."

He seems excited by the "fantastic story" of this year's F1 championship and the "extraordinary phenomenon" of Lewis Hamilton but in truth he is less interested in hanging around the paddock than pruning his plants. "I have been to Grand Prix but I'm a gardener. When sporting events are taking place there's a high chance I shall be in my garden," he says making a modest reference to his 50-acre arboretum in Northamptonshire. "We also happen to be the largest horticultural publishers in Europe which is a convenient linkage."

The media world is a heartland of Haymarket expertise. With a portfolio that includes Campaign, PR Week, Marketing and Media Week, the company caters for most media niches and each title provides content for the Brand Republic website. "Brand Republic is there to [create] a family of linked magazines into the most formidable media-marketing world website and news service and we are very excited about this concept."

Heseltine says the ethos of Haymarket "is one of expansion" and he goes on acquiring, picking up Nursery World magazine here and Pistonheads, a website for car nuts, there.

He is excited about India, where Haymarket has just launched a version of Campaign to add to its string of titles on the subcontinent. Environmental campaigners will wince that Haymarket is publishing Indian versions of Autocar, What Car? and Autocar Professional to meet the feverish interest in motoring.

The company enjoyed a record year last year with £30m profits on a turnover of £220m. The year to come will be harder, as Haymarket moves more of its business online. "Next year our profits will be at best level because we are spending in the transition from traditional publishing to the web. There's quite a shift going on within the marketplace."

The veteran publisher, who in his five decades in the business has managed to acquire niche titles from Practical Motorhome to Renal and Urology News is enthused by the potential of the internet to mine down even further into specialist interests. "I would say it's easier to start today and there are more opportunities than ever before. The web is low cost entry and infinitely divisible into niche markets, somebody who has the capacity to create a website, they can do it in their garage and if it's any good it can establish itself at very limited cost into a profitable business – and I know that because we've been buying them," he says, breaking into a rare laugh.

Haymarket is ahead of its traditional print media rivals as it seeks to exert a similar dominance online, says Heseltine, but he is wary of being taken on by online upstarts. "The younger guys in their garages with their new websites, they don't have any compunctions in trying to go for us." He is hiring younger staff but says it is difficult to retain talent when the online market is "going up almost vertically".

At 74, Heseltine, still tall and ramrod straight, is a member of an ageing Haymarket board, though it does include his son Rupert, the deputy chairman. The former deputy prime minister might want to hire more young staff but he sees nothing wrong with experience. "Show me someone doing it better," he says of his board. "That's a rather arrogant thing to say but I see huge advantages in the stability of people who see Haymarket as a long term career."

As for the chairman, he is seen as immortal by his staff, and he does not seek to dissuade them of the notion. "It's wildly exciting," he says of his job. "What would I do that I enjoy so much?"

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