'I invented Brand Beckham': Richard Desmond takes on BBC, Sky and Channel 4
Addressing the Royal Television Society convention, the media tycoon took swipes at his rivals and defended his controversial business dealings
The media tycoon Richard Desmond has defended his controversial business dealings, describing himself as an “outsider”, who takes satisfaction in defying the odds to defeat his rivals.
In a rare personal speech, the owner of Channel 5, Express newspapers and OK! magazine, told how enemies had tried to kill his business ever since he broke into publishing 40 years ago.
He said: “At every step, there was someone more powerful than me, who thought it would be easy to put me out of business.
"They told me that I would never succeed. And that someone like me should never be allowed to run things.
“I can tell you what I tried to tell them at the time. I'm not going anywhere. I do what I say I will do.”
Addressing media executives at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, Desmond, 61, took swipes at Rupert Murdoch, the BBC and Channel 4 and said that a revitalised Channel 5, which he bought in 2010, now had ITV’s ratings in its sights.
The Northern & Shell chairman said: “I know that as a private company and sole shareholder, I am an outsider and that I do things differently. Sometimes that takes people by surprise.”
Although speaking in Cambridge, Desmond said he would not have succeeded had he attended University there. “I worry that this kind of structured education means you become structured in your thinking. And that affects how you approach taking risks.”
Recalling his early purchase of the UK rights to soft porn title Penthouse, Desmond said: “Between Paul Raymond - who was the king of adult magazines then - and my printers - who were on his side - they tried to kill the business in every way possible.
“We went on to make Penthouse a success and went on to launch and buy, many other magazines. More or less, that sort of struggle has been the story of the past 40 years.
“There were lots of times when we had our backs to the wall. But we always found a way of getting through.”
Referring to the scandals which have afflicted the BBC, Desmond said: “I would love to be able to spend a hundred million pounds on a digital upgrade plan, and if it didn’t work, shrug my shoulders and move on.
“And I would love to be able to make people who leave my company into multi-millionaires as a goodbye present. As some of you may have found out, that isn’t the case
“I have always decided that being independent was the best choice for me. If you are an outsider, it is better to remain in control of being that way.”
“Everything feels different when every pound you risk is your own,” he said. “I don’t have the cushion of a licence fee, or shareholders I can turn to when times get tough.”
Mr Desmond said that he and Mr Murdoch will soon be neighbours. “I’m really looking forward to showing him around the neighbourhood when he rents a cost-effective new location for his newspapers in the Baby Shard - just across the river from me,” Mr Desmond said. “Before you ask. Yes, his building is bigger than mine. But I can live with that. And anyway, I own my own building.”
Since buying Channel 5 for £103.5 million, Mr Desmond has increased the programming budget and, with an unashamedly populist schedule led by Big Brother, the broadcaster’s ratings edged ahead of Channel 4 for a period during the Summer.
“Channel 5 really gets behind US acquisitions, and we support them across our whole portfolio,” said Mr Desmond, who derided the fall in ratings suffered by Mad Men when BSkyB poached the US series from the BBC. “We don’t perform Sky Atlantic-style magic on them – and make the audience disappear.”
The tycoon, whose Health Lottery, launched to challenge the National Lottery has paid out £36 million to good causes, mocked Channel 4, which enjoyed a hit with the “shock doc” The Man With The 10-stone Testicles.
“Ben Frow (C5 programme director) tells me that he doesn't want formulas or gimmicks or shows about people with Ten Stone Testicles. And that he won’t be chasing ratings with television that is cruel and predictable.”
Channel 5 will screen The Bible, an epic US “Genesis to Revelations” blockbuster drama series, which was accused of choosing an actor to play Satan who resembled President Obama. “It’s a different way to look at religion and it will get people talking,” said Desmond who personally views the channel's US acquisitions.
But Desmond defended the channel’s role as a public service broadcaster and said that ratings for its News at Five, which averaged an audience of around 630,000 viewers, were well ahead of the 613,00 who watch Newsnight on BBC2.
“We are doing well against BBC2, and are just about a share point behind. And when we get within reach of ITV in peak I get out a very big cigar,” Mr Desmond said. “I’d like a few more very big cigars.”
Mr Desmond, who said he had second thoughts about making such a personal speech, offered ironic thanks to former sparring partners Lord Hollick, former owner of the Express group and Conrad Black, the ex-Telegraph boss with whom Desmond pursed a personal vendetta.
He thanked “the warm and cuddly Clive Hollick; The selfless Conrad Black; And most recently, the extremely charitable Dianne Thompson (chief executive of National Lottery operator Camelot). Without these guys, I probably wouldn’t be here today!”
Discussing his successes, Mr Desmond claimed to have invented “brand Beckham”. He said: “OK! magazine was losing a million pounds a month. But I still had to pay out seven figure sums for celebrity exclusives we needed.
“Then one day I made a telephone call and met up with a very nice young couple. Their names were Victoria Adams and David Beckham.
“They came to the office in Docklands, and I said: why don’t we work together, and together we can help make you the new King and Queen of Britain.”
“He laughed. And she said ‘how?’ We did a series of features, culminating in their wedding issue, which had over two million sale. We were out of the shit. And we never looked back. And that was the birth of brand Beckham.”
Mr Desmond also offered an olive branch to Lord Sugar, with whom he had a furious boardroom bust-up when the Apprentice star quit as chairman of YouView, the new internet broadcasting platform which Desmond is backing.
“Alan Sugar did a very good job at getting the boxes designed and ready and all the YouView shareholders recognize this,” he said.
Mr Desmond also praised Mr Murdoch for creating BSkyB, “the biggest success story in the history of television” and welcomed his refusal to quit.
The intent of the Desmond speech, which he said he had only delivered reluctantly, appeared to be to position himself as a risk-taking, buccaneering mogul, in the Murdoch style.
He did not discuss his ongoing presence in the television pornography business but hoped the speech would challenge misconceptions about a character frequently portrayed as abrasive. “Since some of you have heard stories about me, I thought you might like to see how it looked from my point of view.”
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