The People vs David Sullivan

The Daily and Sunday Sport publisher wants to be taken more seriously and believes buying the troubled People will give him the status he deserves. But does it want him? By James Silver

David Sullivan is itching to get his hands on The People. The pornography, property and publishing tycoon has made a number of offers for the tabloid, whose circulation is in free-fall, but has so far been rebuffed by its owners, Trinity Mirror. "I'd love to buy it," he admits. "I've made bids for it, but I've been told it's not for sale for the moment - or not at a price I would be willing to pay anyway."

How much does he think it's worth? "The People's a declining product so I'd pay about £25m for it. But it's going down all the time. About three months ago I challenged the owners to sell me a half share. That way they get cash in, and they benefit from the upturn if I turn it around. But they're worried that if I'm successful I'll make them look not very good at their jobs."

Sullivan - who owns the profitable Daily and Sunday Sport titles and is reported to be worth more than £375m personally - feels peeved that he isn't taken seriously as a media business success story. He was once memorably described as "a munchkin porn baron". He says: "I've probably had the worst press in the world. People think if you are in the sex business you are not a good businessman. Well, I am. I'm good at what I do. That's one of the reasons I'd like The People - to show I can make a success of a straight paper."

Sullivan's attempt to buy the Daily Star in 1998 from then owners United News and Media ended in failure and he's determined not to make the same mistake with The People. "I was going to buy the Daily Star for £25m in a partnership with some stockbrokers two years before Richard Desmond bought it," he recalls. "But the stockbrokers began asking too many questions and the owners thought we weren't serious about the offer."

In 1990, Sullivan was deemed unfit to control a mainstream newspaper due to his ownership of a raft of pornographic businesses. To a chorus of disapproval from MPs and family campaigners, he attempted to buy the Bristol Evening Post but was blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - now the Competition Commission - on the grounds that the acquisition was not in the public interest.

The commission's ruling was unequivocal. It stated bluntly that Sullivan's purchase of a controlling interest in the newspaper "could be expected to influence editorial policy" as well as its "character and content", and that it "would harm both the accurate presentation of the news and the free expression of opinion" and concluded that "the acquisition could harm the standing of the paper in the community".

That ruling still rankles. But today Sullivan, 55, is convinced that times have changed and Mary Whitehouse-style prudishness is a thing of the past. The sex business, he claims, is respectable. He points to Express Newspapers proprietor Richard Desmond, who amassed his fortune in the porn trade. Despite his background, Desmond was not only allowed to buy the Express titles, but has also lunched on poached salmon and new potatoes with the Prime Minister in Downing Street. Sullivan says that there would be an outcry if the authorities attempted to block his purchase of The People - or any other title for that matter - this time around.

"If there was a re-run now [of the Bristol Evening Post saga] I would be deemed respectable," he says flatly. "Circumstances and the climate have changed. I think I would be considered an acceptable owner of The People. Theoretically I would be subject to the Competition Commission, but there would be an uproar if it turned me down again when it didn't do anything about Richard Desmond. I'd have natural justice and fair play on my side and I could go to Europe under the Human Rights Act."

Sullivan has a lot of time for his rival, Desmond. "I wouldn't say we were friends, but we exchange correspondence," he says. "He's very amicable. I have the highest regard for him. He's a very hard-working publisher. He's done it himself, he's not inherited it. He's a family man. He lives in England and pays taxes here, which I admire him for."

He continues, a trace of anger creeping into his voice: "It's incredible how Conrad Black, who has raped the Telegraph titles, is Lord Black, and Mr Desmond isn't a lord. His pornography background has held him back, but I think in due course he will be knighted. It's just a matter of time. He'll be a 'Sir' or a 'Lord'."

Does he mind that Desmond has been entertained in the corridors of power while he has been left out in the cold? He answers with a gruff "not really".

Unlike Desmond, Sullivan isn't tempted to make political donations to either of the main political parties. "I couldn't donate to Labour because I don't believe in them with all their taxes," he says, "but I'm not sure about the Tories, either. I'm very right- wing Labour, or very left-wing Conserva-tive. Richard Desmond supports Labour because it suits him at the moment. He says he's Socialist but I don't think he is."

Sullivan's long-term plan to launch a new downmarket but "breast-less" Sunday tabloid aimed at young men, called UK, has been shelved due to the success of Desmond's Daily Star Sunday. "It's a saturated market, that's why I'd prefer to buy The People. It's almost impossible for a new entrant at the moment."

The Daily Star and its Sunday sister have also lured readers away from Sullivan's Sport newspapers. Circulation at the flagship Sunday Sport has plunged from more than 570,000 in 1989 to just 159,000 today. However, he maintains that the business - thanks to a combination of low overheads and pages of ads for premium-rate phone lines - is still a cash cow. "The Sunday [newspaper] market is in terminal decline," says Sullivan. "And we've refused to go the 'free CDs' route. But over the course of the week we're still selling 1.4 million and we're as profitable as ever. We're in this to make money, not for ego."

His newspapers - along with his co-ownership of Birmingham City FC - are merely niches in a vast empire. Sullivan's core business remains property (his tenants include the BBC), and sex (he owns 100 sex shops, three pay-TV channels and a number of internet sites). He runs it all from a small oak-panelled office in his 14-bedroom Essex mansion, proudly revealing that he has only ever visited the Sport offices in Manchester once and has never set foot in one of his sex shops. Nor does he intend to.

He is irritated by the fact that his "lovely, lovely" home has been subjected to snide press comment from "lady journalists who probably live in Hackney". However, he does concede that his taste wasn't always so good. The décor of his previous home was "like a Seventies disco".

"It's currently featuring as the chairman's house in the TV series Footballers' Wives," says Sullivan proudly. "And they've not changed a thing since I sold it 12 years ago." Somehow, you believe him.

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