All in the game: How Britain works
A tale of betrayal, half-truths and lies, of footballers behaving atrociously, of desperate wags, and of the murky relationships between the nation's best PR gurus and Fleet Street's finest
Sunday 07 February 2010
It was, if there is such a thing in crisis management, a typical Friday morning. High up in the scrubby hills overlooking Marbella, Max Clifford, was padding about the pool of his villa, fielding calls on his BlackBerry. Just over 1,000 miles north in a second-floor office in Soho, Phil Hall was at his desk, snatching a spare hour between managing two clients' crises to write a speech, its title "The press, privacy and freedom of speech".
Hall's mobile rang shortly before noon, and within minutes it became clear that his speech would have to wait. A lawyer friend who worked for Chelsea captain John Terry wanted Hall to take over a bad situation that was about to get much worse.
Mr Justice Tugendhat had just overturned the injunction awarded to them exactly a week earlier: the press, led by News of the World, was now free to publish its discovery that he had been having an affair with Vanessa Perroncel, the girlfriend, until, reportedly, four months ago of his friend and England team-mate Wayne Bridge.
Hours later Perroncel engaged the services of Clifford, available after a falling out with Terry four years ago when the footballer accused the publicist of selling stories about him to the press.
The biggest off-field story to hit an England football captain since a bracelet went missing in Mexico 40 years ago had acquired legs. And because it is about the successor to Stan Cullis, Billy Wright, Bobby Moore and Kevin Keegan, the entire nation has to have an opinion. Whereas shag-and-brag stories are two-a-penny, they don't usually concern ex officio role models. So while The Sun and the Mirror had a major bone to fight over, the story was more than low-rent celebrity nonsense. The Daily Mail, defender of the sanctity of marriage, led the charge. The BBC, ever reliant on the word "allegedly", along with the more sober newspapers, enjoyed an excuse to titify news coverage while the rest of us marvelled at how much trouble young, testosterone-filled millionaires can get into.
But before all that, whatever the lawyers said, this was a story that wasn't going to hold. The story had become common but unpublishable knowledge throughout Fleet Street.
Already reporters had scurried across the channel to find out more about Perroncel, the attractive ex-girlfriend of Manchester City left-back Bridge. Until now the brunette, said to be 28 but probably nearer 33, was "just another WAG", a former lingerie model from France. Within hours Perroncel's uncle in a small town in the south of France was receiving calls from British reporters, including one posing as a lawyer. Bridge, meanwhile, by saying nothing other than that he wanted his child's privacy protected, played his role just as the moralisers cast him: the decent, wounded, dumped "best friend" with every reason to be furious.
By lunchtime the following Friday, as the gag was lifted, the stories were ready to roll and Hall and Clifford were preparing to fight a bitter public relations battle.
The first priority for a publicist is to get all the facts. Hall wanted to know from Terry whether his cupboard held any more skeletons. He spent the weekend talking to him and his wife, Toni. The strategy was to present an image of a happy marriage destroyed by an ambitious, man-hungry beauty. For every negative article about Terry there would need to be one emphasising Terry's qualities as a footballer, a captain and a family man.
Toni would go abroad with her parents and children, to Dubai, where they had spent their honeymoon. But the wronged wife and children wouldn't be altogether out of mind, as they had their part to play. A well-placed tip to the Mirror ensured that by Tuesday photos of a mournful Toni on a beach were splashed all over that day's paper. It might have looked like Toni had been caught off guard, in fact she was permanently in touch with Phil Hall, who was choreographing her moves. It would not hurt if Toni came across as the victim, apparently fending off reporters alone. The truth was different.
The weekend's papers had been universal in condemning Terry's behaviour, but there would be some who could come round to Terry's side, such as, for example, The Sun. It found itself – unusually – a little embarrassed, having forked out a hefty inducement to secure Terry to write a column during this summer's World Cup. So after the initial revelation of the infidelity, which the paper delighted in running ahead of its sister title, the News of the World, its attention moved to Perroncel.
On Wednesday, The Sun claimed that Perroncel had slept with five other Chelsea players, a story she strenuously denied. This would not exculpate Terry, but with him in some way a victim, it would be harder to single out Terry for punishment. He had his captaincy as well as a marriage to save. His initial reaction was to dig his heels in. There were reports of him insisting the story wasn't true, but this was superseded by the strategy to portray Terry as contrite. Thus "sources close to Terry" said he was thinking of resigning. The next day's Daily Mail carried claims there were two more men. If so, Terry's "error" was diluted, his prospects brightening.
After flying into London on Sunday, Max Clifford began the week talking money. He made it known there were "at least six" media organisations involved in a bidding war for Perroncel's story, and a £250,000 figure was quoted. His instructions to her were to say nothing, and to arrive at his Surrey mansion looking low-key in a grey cardigan and jeans.
A quarter of a million pounds is less than two weeks' wages to John Terry. Whatever a Sunday newspaper would pay, Max Clifford knew
Terry could and would match to ensure her silence; putting about the £250,000 figure was the best way to get the auction going. "I do believe that by the end of the week we will have a positive result for Vanessa," Clifford told this newspaper.
By Friday the world had been told a lot about Vanessa Perroncel, some of it true. "A lot of rubbish has been put out there about Vanessa, none of it by her," said Clifford. But it wasn't all bad: for every story that appeared, her profile grew, her stock would rise and the value of her story increase. As Clifford said, "She would want to get something out there in due course."
Thanks to some deft media help, it seemed the story might be coming under control. Despite their opposing interests, Clifford and Hall were united in hoping that, whatever happened, Terry would remain England's captain. It was vital if Clifford was to command the highest price for his client's story – or her silence. All seemed to be going to plan. On Friday afternoon he was able to announce that Perroncel had decided not to sell her story. As she stood doe-eyed and evidently upset next to him, he took the opportunity to protest at the press coverage she had received.
Whatever her motivations had been, and whether, as has been reported, she received an £800,000 silence-buyer from Terry, it seemed as if a major fire had been put out. Terry could go to his meeting with England manager Fabio Capello, reassure him of his contrition and that there were no more skeletons in the cupboard, and the lion-hearted captain would be safe.
Capello, who had been abroad having a knee operation, had other plans. It would be remarkable if his bosses at the FA hadn't made their feelings known, although Capello later said his decision was his own. Capello, of course, knew Terry was "no saint", but his card was marked by his assistant Franco Baldini, who had been taking soundings. Baldini, it seems, told Capello that at an early stage in the story, Terry had sent a text message to several England teammates, saying rumours of an affair were "rubbish".
If so, and Terry had lied, Capello was left with little choice. The breach of trust was irreparable. "The players resented being taken for a ride," said a red-top "source". In any event, the meeting lasted just 12 minutes. In the Daily Mail's words, the "Italian family man" was to be congratulated for taking the decisive action it said the FA should have taken days earlier. One part of an expensive strategy had failed.
The fallout from the week leaves England with a new an injury-prone captain, Rio Ferdinand, and John Terry substantially out of pocket. In addition to a possible payout to Perroncel and Hall's fees, he is likely to lose a £5m sponsorship deal with Umbro. The Sun is understood to be keeping Terry as a columnist, but plans to renegotiate a lower fee, as he was signed up as the England captain.
For Hall, this was arguably never a winnable case, and can be added to his file of "challenging" clients, among them disgraced RBS boss Sir Fred Goodwin. Yet as a specialist in crisis management, his reputation for handling only the biggest crises can only have been enhanced.
By choosing to maintain an enigmatic silence, Vanessa Perroncel is keeping the world waiting. If Clifford has much to do with it, reality television, magazine interviews and countless other lucrative prospects seem a formality. Meanwhile, Toni and John Terry have a marriage to mend.
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