Last Friday, Richard Desmond bought the television channel Five for £103m and there was barely a murmur of protest in the media. Yet his purchase of the Daily Express in December 2000 created a terrific hullabaloo. Many thought that a man whose fortune was founded on pornography might not be a proper person to own a national newspaper. The Guardian had doubts, having produced evidence linking Mr Desmond with hardcore pornography. It discovered that a company owned by him had registered a website which promised 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.
Despite this and other pieces in The Guardian, and effusions against Mr Desmond in the Daily Mail, he got the Daily and Sunday Express, as well as the Daily Star, with a helping hand from Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, who believed he would keep the paper in the New Labour camp (he did, though not for long). Nonetheless, he remained a controversial character for some time.
Not any more, it seems. His purchase of Five was reported briefly by the Mail and The Times in their business pages without any hint of anxiety or reproach. The Daily Telegraph had run a short non-judgemental piece the previous day. The Independent carried a fair-sized item. Only The Guardian pushed the boat out, with a full page of news and comment that lacked its former spirit of censure. You might think newspapers no longer care about Mr Desmond's past as a pornographer because he is a changed character. In fact, although he has sold his pornographic magazines, he still owns several lucrative pay-TV sex channels which, while perhaps not featuring the likes of Anal Annie, pump out extreme stuff. These are available on Rupert Murdoch's BskyB satellite system.
Why the differing responses between 2000 and now? Perhaps newspapers sense that attitudes to pornography have changed. After all, one of New Labour's most striking legacies is a lap-dancing club in every city. Millions of people are said to ogle hardcore sex on the internet night and day. The old – and to me still wholly persuasive – argument that pornography is inevitably degrading to women is heard less from feminists, churchmen and politicians.
There is a further explanation for Mr Desmond's easy ride. Most newspapers are disinclined to pick a fight with an established proprietor, and the Murdoch-owned titles are hardly in a position to throw stones in view of Sky's role as a platform for Mr Desmond's sex channels. More than this, there is a sense of wariness. When the Mail inveighed against him nine years ago, the Express responded with a long article about the wild oats sewn by its proprietor Lord Rothermere, which led to a non-aggression pact between the two newspapers that has mostly endured. The Telegraph retains memories of Mr Desmond's explosion at a meeting during which he accused its executives of being Nazis.
Some newspapers are rather frightened of Richard Desmond. He plays by rougher rules, and they would rather not engage with him. This is regrettable because there are greater public interest issues around his acquisition of Five than there were with the Express titles. We make a choice in paying for a newspaper. Moreover, there was never any prospect of his turning the staid Daily Express into a smut sheet. Five, by contrast, is beamed into every sitting room, and has a history as a home of soft porn. One turn of the ratchet and your children might be watching things you would prefer them not to on terrestrial TV.
I have no idea whether Mr Desmond has any such intentions but, given his background, it is surely a matter of legitimate public concern. But who is concerned? Not Ofcom, which is apparently waving the bid through. Not the newspapers, and very few MPs. Meanwhile, a Prime Minister who frets about your children's consumption of chocolate orange slices seems wholly unruffled by Richard Desmond's acquisition of channel Five.
A Society to Save Simon Heffer
The Daily Telegraph could not bring itself to report the release from an American prison of its former proprietor, Conrad Black. Is it embarrassed? Surely it won't be able to ignore his appeal and, if it ever comes, his rehabilitation.
A scarcely less enthralling saga is being played out within the Telegraph. After nearly a year's sojourn in Cambridge, during which he continued to write his columns for the paper, Simon Heffer's thoughts are turning to a possibly enhanced role when he returns to London. In a recent conversation with his friend Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, several possibilities were discussed. Might the editor of The Spectator (a sister publication) move aside for Heff? Or the supremo of the Telegraph's comment pages? The answer appears to be "no".
My impression is that Mr Heffer is not as appreciated as he should be, partly because his violently anti-Cameron pieces embarrass executives now that the Tories are in firmly power. Surely it is time to rally to his side. I feel about him as I would if some familiar monument were threatened by an iconoclastic town council, and would cheerfully contribute towards his maintenance.
For Mrs Brooks is an honourable lady
As I have mentioned before, Rebekah Brooks's entry in Who's Who? might be judged slightly misleading. The chief executive of News International says she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, though in fact she was a language student there, and never took a degree.
Hats off, then, to an institution calling itself the University of the Arts London, which conferred an Honorary Fellowship on Mrs Brooks last week for her contribution to "the arts and the creative industries" (that must mean The Sun, which she edited for six years). It won't be long before Oxford is tossing honorary doctorates in her direction.Reuse content