Desmond: I did not order attack story on my rival

Daily Express proprietor tells High Court that he gives journalists editorial freedom
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The Independent Online

Richard Desmond, the owner of four national newspapers, declared on behalf of proprietors everywhere yesterday that none of them ever tells an editor or a journalist what to write.

Giving evidence in the High Court, Mr Desmond testified: "It's not the way it works. We do not instruct our editors or our journalists to write pieces about people. It does not happen."

Desmond is suing the biographer Tom Bower over a claim that he told a journalist on one of his newspapers, the Sunday Express, to write an article attacking a rival tycoon, Conrad Black.

But the court also heard that he is an "interfering" proprietor who tells lies "at the drop of a hat", and that he had used his newspapers to run a vendetta against Black, the former owner of the Daily Telegraph, with whom he was embroiled in a business dispute.

Desmond denies the allegation. He also denies the suggestion made by Mr Bower in his book Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge that he was "ground into the dust" during a face-to-face confrontation with Lord Black.

He claimed that he and his rival were friends, despite what he agreed was an "acrimonious" dispute over their joint ownership of a large and profitable printing works in London's Docklands.

He revealed that only last week he had been to visit Lord Black "as a friend" in a low-security prison in Florida, where he is serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence for fraud. The disgraced ex-tycoon is also considering legal action against Mr Bower, and Mr Desmond was hoping for help with his case, which concerns a paragraph in the lengthy book about Black. But he was not allowed in to see the prisoner.

He accused Mr Bower of writing the disputed paragraph without proper research, and of getting his facts wrong. The court was shown copies of three letters that Bower wrote to Mr Desmond or to people employed by him, asking for a meeting because he was researching a biography of Mr Desmond with the provisional title Rough Trade, and wanted to check his facts. All the letters went unanswered.

Mr Desmond denied receiving any of them, and suggested that they might be fake. Ronald Thwaites QC, representing Bower, called this a "monstrous allegation". While the court was still in session, Mr Bower's wife, Veronica Wadley, the former editor of the London Evening Standard, went home and returned with an unopened letter that had been sent by recorded delivery to Mr Desmond's home, but had been returned to its sender after nobody signed for it.

Mr Desmond said that the letter was wrongly addressed, because it gave the name of his house as Badgers, when it is called The Badgers – but said the postcode was correct. He was asked to open the envelope and confirm that the letter inside was identical to the ones which he had just said might be fake.

Mr Desmond denied receiving a memo from Michael Pilgrim, the former executive editor of the Sunday Express, complaining about his interference in the running of the paper, and said he did not know that Mr Pilgrim had been suspended after his memo was leaked and published in the Observer. Nor did he ask why Paul Ashford, editorial director of Express Newspapers, had decided to appoint a new editor of the Sunday Express, Martin Townsend.

Mr Thwaites told him: "It is perfectly clear you will tell lies at the drop of a hat, that you are prepared to say anything to support your case." He added: "I suggest that the reality is that Mr Pilgrim lost his job for speaking out about management interference in editorial matters – which complaint was unacceptable to you."

Mr Desmond replied: "No, I never heard of this. Michael Pilgrim was always very friendly, very warm. Once he applauded when I walked into a room – if anything, he was over the top in welcoming us in. He was a very nice fellow, I thought."

The case continues.