One of the more entertaining afternoons at the Leveson inquiry was when Max Clifford gave evidence.
The PR guru presented himself as being on the side of the angels rather than his celebrity clients. “I’d rather enjoy my sex life than read about other people’s sex lives,” Clifford said, prompting Lord Justice Leveson to remove his glasses and rub his face.
As he begins his jail sentence for eight counts of indecent assault this weekend, Clifford’s words have added significance.
The publicist told the Leveson inquiry a huge market had grown up in the past 20 years for celebrity stories. “To me it’s always been much to do about little, but it’s become a big industry.”
He thought “the credibility of the British press has sunk in recent years… The more responsible and the more caring the British press, the better. I would also love to see good news in the British papers because it helps to give the nation a lift.”
This was delivered in his usual deadpan manner. If he was laughing inside there was no way of telling.
But his holier-than-though treatise was more than undone by other things he told Leveson. These included how he made up the story that led to the Sun headline “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”. (The comedian was going on tour and it was good publicity, with Clifford saying: “I was happy to encourage it – I was looking after Freddie’s career.”)
He also said he had no idea if the tale was actually true that the then Tory minister David Mellor liked to wear a Chelsea kit while having sex with his client, the actress Antonia de Sancha.
For a brief interlude, the Leveson inquiry took us back to a time, pre-hacking, pre-internet, pre-PC, when newspapers were in their pomp, fuelled by the riches of ambitious male proprietors, locked in fierce rivalry – when, literally, anything went. It was an age of crazy competition between newsrooms, when seasoned journalists literally raced each other to get the unfolding story, no matter how bizarre (remember the rush to save the life of Blackie the donkey?). It was when Rupert Murdoch took on the print unions and won, and the giant ego of Robert “Cap’n Bob” Maxwell owned the Mirror titles; when The Sun was able to boast “it’s The Sun wot won it” in relation to the 1992 general election.
It was an era of heavy boozing and smoking and sex (and that was just in the office), of story-telling and chasing, of money-no-object haring across the world on improbable missions (to find Lord Lucan, to discover the yeti, to encounter lost tribes of cannibals). The profession, if that’s what it can be termed, had its own vernacular, in which often the phrase meant the exact opposite.
So, someone was “bang to rights” – which frequently meant they were anything but, that the story was based on a single-sourced claim, sometimes a total pack of lies which had no chance of surviving a mauling in court. Subjects or opposing papers were “legged over” or ripped off. Or they were “shafted” – same thing.
At the centre of all this febrile nuttiness was Maxwell Frank Clifford. One of the most commonly used terms in the madness was the “buy-up”. Clifford came to make it his own.
A story would break, and news editors would dispatch reporters to do deals with those involved – those directly involved, but also their friends and relatives. The cry would go up across the news floor that “the Express has got the mother!” or “the Mirror’s got the father!” They would descend like a pack on an unsuspecting location, ignoring speed limits or parking controls, to “doorstep”: knock on doors, shout through letterboxes, turn up with bunches of flowers out of feigned sympathy, do anything to get the person to agree to speak to them and only them.
Money was most likely to be dangled by the Sundays, by the News of the World, People and the Sunday Mirror, where the rivalry was fiercest and always the hunt was on for a “good read” at the weekend. “My newspaper guarantees to match or top any offer you’ve received from another news organisation. Please call me on this number…”
It beggars belief now, the tricks they pulled. Once, I remember phoning a friend, also a journalist, who helped the red tops. There was a whirring noise in the background. “What’s that?” I asked. “I can’t talk to you now.” “What are you doing?” “Don’t ask.” Eventually, he confessed: he was drilling a hole behind a picture on a bedroom wall in a Yorkshire hotel, to feed through a micro-camera, to catch the unwitting guest in the room next door enjoying what the paper would call “illicit romps”.
Gradually, though, the battle changed. One man cleverly and calculatingly monopolised the buy-up. From his base above a hairdresser and shoe shop in London’s Bond Street, Clifford increasingly became the agent who represented the people in a story. He was the buy-up king. Instead of six offers lying on the doormat, he would ensure they all went to him, for only him to negotiate and agree.
Until Clifford made the trade his own, there had been no dominant fixer, nobody controlling buy-ups. He was like a current all-powerful football agent, selling access to his clients, negotiating their interviews, appearances and endorsements. He found a lucrative niche, putting himself in the middle of a web, able to play one editor off against another.
It would be wrong to suppose he only dealt with the tabloids. I met him on many occasions. One of his stunts, if he had, say, a tale with a political dimension – an MP up to no good, for example – would be to push a few crumbs in the direction of the “serious” papers. It reinforced the veracity of the disclosures appearing elsewhere, gave them respectability.
He knew the broadsheets didn’t pay for stories, that cheque-book journalism was not our business, so he would want to barter. In return for a tit-bit or two about the hapless politician he would request a piece on another client of his. I recall sitting in the kitchen of his house in Surrey and agreeing to a travel article about a golf complex he was representing in southern Spain, in exchange for some dirt on a government minister.
To the inquiring reporter from the less well-off, “quality” end of the market, Clifford would ask: “How can you help me?” He was serious. I was struck by how humourless he could be, especially when it came to boosting the coffers or reputation of Max Clifford Associates. He did not do much small talk, his occasional quips weren’t that funny at all, and he was deliberate and laconic in his delivery, wanting to cut to the deal. The unwritten bargain was simple and understood: no swap meant no details meant no story.
Now, Clifford is in prison and Max Clifford Associates faces an uncertain future. Already, clients, including Simon Cowell, the lingerie brand Boux Avenue and Channel 4 businessman Dave Fishwick have reportedly dropped the firm. In truth, however, the trade in buy-ups he cornered has long since diminished. All newspapers are on harder times; the News of the World has disappeared; the war for the kiss ’n’ tells on a Sunday is less intense; more PRs have entered the field, albeit without the same success or profile; and we’ve had Leveson.
In this new, cleaner age, it’s perhaps fitting that the man who caused Lord Justice Leveson to take off his glasses and rub his eyes at the evidence he was hearing should have collapsed so spectacularly. As Clifford would doubtless have said, if he was pushing the account of his own rise and fall: “You couldn’t make it up.”