Richard Desmond has spent years schmoozing, charming and pampering Victoria and David Beckham. Now the proprietor of Express Newspapers has airkissed goodbye to his long-running love-in with the ultimate celebrity couple.
From the moment Britain's most photographed couple were enthroned on the cover of OK! magazine on their wedding day, their relationship with the porn magnate-turned-press baron had seemed like a match made in showbusiness heaven. But last week, two years and numerous glossy picture spreads later, it finally crumbled amid a mêlée of claims and counter-claims, after serialisation rights to the Spice Girl's autobiography were sold to Desmond's sworn rivals Hello! and Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.
With them went far more than the chance of a cosy fireside chat at the Beckhams' Cheshire home, and a week of artificially boosted circulation figures. Almost all observers agree that this one symbolic showbiz battle has cost Desmond his first real chance to challenge the newspaper middle-market domination of the Daily Mail and the The Mail on Sunday.
Though the very idea now seems bizarre, when Desmond first bought the Express titles for £125m last November much of Fleet Street quaked in its boots. Here was a man with personal wealth and celebrity connections the average tabloid showbiz editor could only dream of: a man with the power to hoover up soft focus wedding photo shoots and "at home" interviews with the world's biggest stars.
Within days of arriving at Express Newspapers' headquarters, Ludgate House, in London, Desmond was demonstrating his clout to his own employees, parading the Beckhams and their publicist through the newsroom, champagne flutes in hand. One former Express employee recalls: "David looked at the sports pages, but Posh Spice didn't seem very interested in anything. Desmond then took them into his office overlooking the Thames and looked at them in turn, saying, 'you're the best footballer in England, fucking brilliant, and you're the best pop star in England, fucking brilliant'."
As he gazes now towards the dome of St Paul's cathedral through that same Thames-side office window, all this may seem a distant memory to Desmond. If the events of the past three weeks have proved anything, it is that there is no such thing as loyalty in showbusiness.
To fully understand the autobiography saga it is necessary to go back to last December, barely a month after Desmond's Northern and Shell empire assumed control of the Express group. Penguin, which reportedly paid £1m to publish Victoria Beckham's book, Learning to Fly, offered him the serialisation rights for £900,000.
But rather than sign immediately, Desmond chose to sit on the contract for eight months. To his rivals, this represented a fatal error that enabled them to snatch the deal from under his nose.
In what he assumed was a futile last ditch bid, The Mail on Sunday's deputy editor, Rod Gilchrist, telephoned Penguin to confirm that the agreement with Northern and Shell had been finalised. When he was told there was still all to play for, he immediately contacted Phil Hall, editor-in-chief of Hello! and the pair joined forces to close the deal for £700,000, throwing in a further £300,000 to support a television advertising campaign.
A still triumphant Hall recalls: "The book is fantastic, and all I can say is that Richard obviously hadn't seen it. She talks about eating disorders, being bullied at school, the first date with David, the first kiss and the row with [Manchester United's manager] Sir Alex Ferguson. There's even about 80 photos taken with her own camera, of her and David on their honeymoon, of her at school and of her with Brooklyn [their son]."
On hearing of his rivals' coup, Desmond is said to have hit the roof, firing off emails countermanding an earlier instruction to his journalists that the Beckhams should always be referred to as Victoria and David, rather than Posh and Becks. Earlier this week he retaliated directly, serialising the unauthorised biography Victoria's Secrets, by a former Express reporter, focusing on the singer's alleged breast implants, acne problem and lack of vocal talent. The image of a livid Desmond strikes a believable chord with Marc Bedwell, a media analyst, who feels that a big showbiz scoop is exactly what the Express group needs to lift it out of the doldrums. With circulation having dropped to around 960,000 and 888,000 respectively, the Daily Express and Sunday Express continue to sell less than half as many copies as their rival Mail titles.
"Desmond's been nurturing Posh and Becks for ages," says Bedwell, who is press director of the media advertising agency Mediavest. "Posh sells papers. As a couple she and Becks are top of the celebrity league, so Desmond will be particularly galled by this. Scooping this serialisation would have been a clear circulation booster, and that is exactly what he needs."
However, sources close to Desmond tell a different story. They argue that his apparent prevarication over whether to pursue the book rights was actually part of a carefully plotted strategy aimed at delaying their handover to anyone else, while enabling him to secure Victoria's Secrets for a fraction of the fee. Once news of the Mail/Hello! deal emerged, his decision to publish the unauthorised work in all its colourful detail appeared "legitimate" in the face of the Beckhams' decision to jump ship. A close aide of Desmond's says he decided not to sign the deal because he was offered the serialisation alone, with no accompanying interview, photographs or even advance glimpse of the book. A former colleague adds: "Richard decided that the official one wasn't worth it for him. If he had wanted it, he would have got it. He didn't want it, and I should think he'll actually be rubbing his hands with glee. You could argue that he had the last laugh, because the version he ended up running with he got for a tenth of the price, and he's done a classic spoiler with it. The Sunday Express added 30 per cent to its circulation last week in one go, and you can't argue with that."
He adds that, contrary to popular belief, it is the Beckhams, rather than Desmond, who will be most angered by the circumstances surrounding their move from one camp to the other. Dismissing the notion that Desmond is fuming at the thought of his arch rivals exploiting the showbiz bonanza he came so close to scooping himself, he says: "The Beckhams will be looking at it differently. They will be thinking, 'stuff him'. He's turned them over."Reuse content