Richard Desmond: Capo de' capi of Fleet Street

The ebullient owner of the Daily Express thought he had left behind his life as a purveyor of top-shelf magazines to join the ranks of the great and good. But his background caught up with him in New York last week when a mafioso chat line baron admitted trying to put the frighteners on him
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The Independent Online

For all its obsession with asylum seekers and house prices, the Daily Express is still usually more than happy to find room for that staple of the tabloid press: a juicy court case. Not this one, though. Last week in New York, Richard Martino, a gangster with Mafia links, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud through a $650m (£340m) scam. Martino also admitted to conspiring to extort money from a prominent millionaire British businessman.

For all its obsession with asylum seekers and house prices, the Daily Express is still usually more than happy to find room for that staple of the tabloid press: a juicy court case. Not this one, though. Last week in New York, Richard Martino, a gangster with Mafia links, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud through a $650m (£340m) scam. Martino also admitted to conspiring to extort money from a prominent millionaire British businessman.

Who was his victim? He is a self-made man whose products are bought by millions every day. He has access to the most powerful people in the land. He is Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express, Sunday Express and the Daily Star, and former proprietor of Asian Babes, Pantie Parade and Horny Housewives.

The American trouble is said to have begun when Desmond had supposedly been looking to expand his adult businesses in the US. FBI documents filed to the court allege that Martino threatened "to damage Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell business if Desmond or any Northern and Shell employees ever attempted again to do business in the United States". The documents went on to describe the punishment allegedly meted out to one of Desmond's managing directors subsequently sent to New York by his boss in apparent defiance of the threat. According to the FBI, Philip Bailey was pistol-whipped, his face was slashed and a Taser-style gun was applied to his testicles as a result of his efforts on behalf of the Express proprietor.

Mr Desmond, 53, has always dismissed reports of any punishment beating as "pure fantasy". A spokesman said his company "never knowingly had anything other than legitimate dealings with businesses in our dealings as a publisher". But there is no doubt that such stories, accurate or not, do not improve the public image of the newspaper proprietor, husband and father of one. He loathes the fact that he is best known for being a publisher of top-shelf magazines, despite the fact that it is a full 12 months since he sold all 43 porn titles (while quietly keeping hold of his adult TV stations).

"Yes, the 'publishing porn king' stuff is what set him up financially," says one a senior former colleague. "But he loved the day the Express fell into his lap because it made him into a press baron and it gave him credibility."

Seen in hindsight, Desmond's life had been building up to the moment in November 2000 that he gained control of the Express. He had by then perfected the swagger of the Identikit newspaper tycoon and had crafted his performance beautifully: his unassailable self-confidence would have been wasted in any other job. Had it not been for the New York court case, Desmond would have enjoyed last week. Newspapers were dominated by the London mayor Ken Livingstone's attacks on the Nazi-supporting past of the current Lord Rothermere's grandfather, whose family owns the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. (Desmond hopes that Livingstone's plan to free up London's newspaper market will give him an opening to challenge the Standard.)

Livingstone's words echoed the regular trawlings through the grandfather's past by Desmond, who has been at war with the current Lord Rothermere ever since the company wrote to Express subscribers to tell them that their newspaper "has just been bought by one of Britain's most prolific peddlers of pornography". Just last Friday, a piece masquerading as a news story in the Express reported once more that the grandfather "was an obsessed fan of Hitler who addressed the monster as 'my dear Führer', 'Your excellency' and 'Adolf the great'".

Desmond, who is Jewish, often sees anti-Semitism as a factor in the criticism aimed in his direction. He is probably right. But some of it might be plain old-fashioned snobbery: his is, of course, the newest of new money. Desmond's father was the managing director of the screen advertising group Pearl & Dean, but the family, from north London, found their comfortable lives disrupted when Richard's father went deaf. As a result, the young Desmond was taken along to his father's business meetings. He says this is where he picked up a love of finance, and partly explains why he was so bored at school that he dropped out at 15. In 1974, Desmond began publishing a magazine for musicians. His move into the "adult" market came eight years later, when he bought the rights to publish a British edition of Penthouse.

Of course, his critics need not be snobs or anti-Semites. They may have problems with any pornographer who buys an established newspaper group, donates £100,000 to the ruling party after the Government had given the go-ahead to his purchase and goes on to enjoy drinks with the Prime Minister. (Though Desmond and Blair have subsequently fallen out; the former is now officially a Tory.) They may dislike a show-off: Desmond is famously presented with a banana on a silver plate every day in his office by a liveried butler. Or a bully: Desmond is said to have locked one of his executives in a cupboard and has had to deny throwing a chair at another senior employee. ("I pushed the chair," he says.)

A former Daily Express executive recalls Desmond walking on to the editorial floor during the height of the foot-and mouth crisis. "We had a front-page picture of loads of animals being burned," he said. "He looked at it and announced what headline he wanted: 'Holocaust'. When Desmond was told what offence such a move would cause, he snapped cockily: 'How can I offend people with that? I don't think it's offensive and I am a four-by-two myself.'" Unusually, he was persuaded to change his mind.

Meanwhile, for all his faults, Desmond does have a warm side - he is a tireless charity worker, "far beyond anything that is made public", according to a supporter. His decision to throw Nazi salutes and goose-step his way through a meeting last year with Daily Telegraph executives - when it looked like the paper was going to be taken over by a German company - brought bafflement, amusement and scorn in equal measure. What he appeared to have forgotten was that his Express takeover was financed by Commerzbank, based in Frankfurt.

His fans put such behaviour down to his wild enthusiasm and refusal to conform. They talk of how his presence injects oxygen into the room. Richard Barber, who edited OK! magazine for Desmond, says he is "exhilarating company". "He is an absolute iconoclast and a stranger to self-doubt. He has many more good points as an employer than bad. He just has a famously short fuse."

That is a minority view. More will agree with investigative reporter John Sweeney, who unearthed the Mafia allegations - three years ahead of the FBI - while making a documentary for the BBC's Money Programme. "What is it with newspaper barons?" asks Sweeney. "I suppose that if God wanted them to be nice people he would have made them differently."

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