Many people may be tempted to laugh at Richard Desmond's boast in an interview with Management Today that he offered Rupert Murdoch £1bn for his four British newspapers a year ago. I would advise them not to. Whatever we may think of Mr Desmond, who made his fortune out of pornographic magazines, he is not a joke figure. The owner of the Express newspapers and Channel Five has lots of money.
Mr Murdoch turned down the offer. He has no need to sell his British newspapers, though The Times and The Sunday Times lost £87.7m in the year to 28 June 2009, the most recent figure we have. He has a particular fondness for The Sun, which he transformed into a mass circulation tabloid. No doubt he enjoys the power and prestige which ownership confers. As long as he has breath in his body, Rupert Murdoch is not going to sell his British titles.
But I hope it will not be thought indelicate of me to point out that he is 80 next March. Sooner or later he must pass on the baton, presumably to his son James, who runs the British operation. Murdoch junior is certainly much less enamoured of newspapers than his father. He might reasonably take the view that The Times and Sunday Times will continue to lose money, though cost-cutting and more buoyant advertising may have clipped their huge losses. The Sun and News of the World are not as profitable as they were, making £40.3 million in the year to 28 June 2009.
In fact, Mr Desmond's £1bn offer, if it really was made, is an awful lot of money for a newspaper group probably barely profitable even under improved economic conditions. Presumably he covets The Sun but he might, if Murdoch's British empire were ever sold off, be required to take the loss-making Times as well. Who knows, this self-proclaimed outsider might welcome the opportunity of getting his hands on what, nominally at least, remains the Establishment's newspaper.
In my view it would be a disaster if Mr Desmond acquired some or all of these newspapers. Whereas Rupert Murdoch has over the years invested in journalism, Mr Desmond is a one-trick pony who is highly proficient at cost cutting (as Channel Five is now discovering) but is not renowned for improving the journalistic quality of his publications. Mr Murdoch may be the Left's bogeyman, but he seems a visionary in comparison with Mr Desmond, as well as almost saintly.
Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I do not relish the prospect of a pornographer, who still owns a number of sexually explicit satellite television channels, becoming a major force in the British media, and conceivably owning The Times. It is worth remembering that we owe Mr Desmond's leap into respectability to the devout Christian, and now Roman Catholic, Tony Blair, and his sidekick, Alastair Campbell.
Both men were keen that Mr Desmond should buy the Express titles when they came on the market in November 2000. Despite its history as a Tory newspaper, the Daily Express had supported New Labour for several years, and Blair and Campbell wanted to keep it that way. They viewed with horror the possibility that the right-wing Mail group might acquire the Express titles, though it had given undertakings to keep them left-of-centre. Campbell knew Mr Desmond, and the would-be press proprietor was invited around to No 10 for a chat.
There was, of course, the little difficulty of Mr Desmond's background as a pornographer, which in the view of some rendered him unfit to own a national newspaper. The Guardian discovered that a company owned by him had registered a website promising live heterosexual sex, live lesbian sex, as well as other images portraying a sex-crazed woman of 78, another who was pregnant, and another who went by the name of Anal Annie.
The then trade secretary was the Blairite Stephen Byers, a man who has subsequently not exactly burnished his reputation for probity. On 7 February 2001 Mr Byers announced there would be no Competition Commission investigation into the takeover of Express Newspapers. Eight days later Mr Desmond wrote a cheque for £100,000 to the Labour Party which would have had to have been declared under new electoral laws if it had been made one day later, but did not come to light for 18 months. The Express titles supported New Labour during the May 2001 election, though they later switched to the Tories.
Here is the man who might – just – one day own Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers. He could not have done it without Tony Blair, who however does not once mention him in his recently published memoirs. This is the same devoutly religious Tony Blair who "spoke for God" in a debate two weeks ago with the atheist Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps, when he next sees the Pope, the former Prime Minister might ask his Holiness for clarification as to the Roman Catholic Church's line on Anal Annie.
£675 is rather steep for a Spectator sport
I hope readers will forgive me if I briefly return to The Spectator's role as a manic promoter of parties and lavish and exorbitant hospitality. There is a full-page advertisement in the current issue of the magazine for tickets for the England-Scotland rugby union match at Twickenham next March.
The price of a "luxurious package" is a stonking £675 per person. Apart from the actual ticket, there is lunch and boundless quantities of champagne, fine wines and liqueurs. Unidentified "celebrity guest speakers" (doubtless including chief executive Andrew Neil) are mentioned, and a souvenir match programme is also generously included.
But what really made my eyes pop out – and it presumably accounts for a large part of the £675 cost – is the promise of a "VIP hostess service". I hope I am as broad-minded as the next man, but I can't help wondering whether it right for the imaginative Mr Neil to bus in young ladies to pander to the needs of rugby-loving Spectator readers who, by this stage of the afternoon, will have knocked back considerable amounts of champagne and cognac, and may easily forget themselves. Sensible wives will think twice before popping a £675 "luxurious package" into their husbands' Christmas stockings.