Focus: Cherie down under

The curious affair of the Prime Minister's wife and the PR trip from hell. By Kathy Marks
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Australians remember the last time Cherie Blair came to call. Offered free pick of the goodies at a Melbourne department store, she swept out with no fewer than 68 items, which she only belatedly offered to pay for. This time, on a tour that uncomfortably mixes charity fundraising with book plugging and fee-earning, Mrs Blair will leave these shores with considerably more profit. However, people here, and back home, are starting to ask: at what cost to her reputation?

Australians remember the last time Cherie Blair came to call. Offered free pick of the goodies at a Melbourne department store, she swept out with no fewer than 68 items, which she only belatedly offered to pay for. This time, on a tour that uncomfortably mixes charity fundraising with book plugging and fee-earning, Mrs Blair will leave these shores with considerably more profit. However, people here, and back home, are starting to ask: at what cost to her reputation?

Even before she embarked on the tour, there were biting criticisms from the British press. "Shame of Cherie's money-grubbing" was an Evening Standard headline, and the Conservative party co-chairman Liam Fox chipped in with: "She's Cherie Booth in her professional life, but Cherie Blair when there's cash to be made." Although the children's charity for which she spoke, in New Zealand, was thrilled at the £79,400 the event raised, the impression once more is that Cherie Blair has been poorly advised. According to her critics, of whom there is no shortage here, any Australian could have warned her of the perils of employing the country's most notorious spin-doctor, Max Markson, to promote her whistle-stop charity tour.

With the same naivety that she displayed in her dealings with another colourful Australian, Peter Foster, who helped her to buy two cut-price flats in Bristol, Mrs Blair engaged the services of a man with a questionable past and an autobiography entitled Show Me the Money. Even Mr Foster, a convicted conman, recoils at the mention of Mr Markson, a smooth-tongued go-getter known locally as "Mr 20 Per Cent". "He's not the type of chap I would want to associate with," Mr Foster said. "I know that's a bit rich, coming from me, but even I draw the line at trying to make money out of charity."

That was the principal charge levelled at Mrs Blair as she criss-crossed Australia, regaling guests at £81-a-head dinners (£122 in Sydney) with insipid tales of Downing Street life and plugs for her new book, The Goldfish Bowl, about the spouses of prime ministers. Her six-city Australasian tour, which included a stop in Auckland, New Zealand, has raised funds for children's hospitals.

But a leaked draft budget prepared by British-born Mr Markson suggested that Mrs Blair would be paid £102,600, with the promoters set to receive £112,800. Mr Markson, who heads the public relations firm Markson Sparks!, denounced the figures as "totally false" but refused to disclose her fee, citing contractual obligations. His agency's cut was "just" £42,000, he claimed. The Children's Cancer Institute Australia, meanwhile, expects £103,400 from the week-long tour.

While the sums remain unknown, Australians are unimpressed by the notion that as little as one-third of their money may end up going to a good cause. One newspaper even reported, on the eve of Mrs Blair's dinner in Adelaide, that the law governing charity fundraising would be changed so "proceeds cannot be 'seriously eroded' by administration, management or agents' fees."

With her family under financial pressure after buying a £3.6m London house that they have failed to rent out, suspicions are high that Mrs Blair's motives were mercenary. Australians note that Mrs Blair, who calls herself Cherie Booth in her professional life, chose to use her husband's name last week. To make matters worse, her talks were poorly received. In Auckland, her first port of call, she twice committed the cardinal sin of referring to her audience as Australians. At a dinner at the glitzy Burswood Casino, on the Swan River in Perth, several guests nodded off as she presented photographs of her children and recounted the pitfalls of "living above the shop", including bumping into private secretaries in her nightie. The audience at a gala dinner at the Melbourne Convention Centre was similarly underwhelmed.

Guests turned up expecting Mrs Blair, billed as the "noted British attorney, human rights advocate and wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair", to provide insights into her life at the Bar and her espousal of the downtrodden.

Instead, Mrs Blair, who made her final appearance in Sydney last night, spent the bulk of her 45-minute lecture nakedly promoting her book, which was on sale for £21 (ordinary readers can buy it for £13.29 on Amazon, where it is, at present, 13,060th in the sales rankings). "People were going to sleep, to be honest," one guest, Steve Seddon, told Channel Nine television.

Accompanying her during the week - and making sure journalists were not admitted to any of her events - was Mr Markson, 48, irrepressibly cheerful despite the flak he received. His agency has organised scores of charity events, and masterminded speaking tours of Australia by celebrities as luminous as Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, George Bush Snr and Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor.

But his reputation is not squeaky clean. A flamboyant figure who lives in one of Sydney's most upmarket harbourside neighbourhoods, he was investigated by the Australian Electoral Commission in relation to undeclared political donations.

He was twice named in state parliaments over funds allegedly owed to charities, one of which, the Sydney Children's Hospital Foundation, accused him of "abhorrent" behaviour after he allegedly failed to pay it £34,000 from a fundraising dinner. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Research Foundation in Adelaide claims it was promised £82,400 from a function addressed by Mr Giuliani in 2003. It received just £8,400, while Mr Guiliani was paid £125,500.

Maurice Henderson, the foundation's executive director, warned the public last week to write cheques directly to charities - avoiding middlemen such as Mr Markson. However, the foundation and Markson Sparks! issued a joint statement on Friday saying they had settled their differences. One media figure describes Mr Markson, whose website features press releases about a new perfume called Naked and a survey about sex in the workplace, as "tacky and opportunistic". Another said: "Markson comes first, second, third and fourth, and if there's anything left over, you might sneak in."

Some in the charity world defend Mr Markson, pointing out that he underwrites the costs associated with such events, many of which had blue-chip sponsors such as Volkswagen. Andrew Young, chief executive of the Starlight Foundation in New Zealand, which was given £79,400 from Mrs Blair's Auckland talk, said: "We got double what we expected, and we carried no risk or responsibility."

Others question why Mrs Blair needed to be paid a fee, or at least such a large one. She flew to Australia first-class on Gulf Air, reportedly for free, and was given chauffeur-driven limousines by Jaguar, one of her sponsors.

Elizabeth Cham, national director of Philanthropy Australia, an umbrella group, said: "It seems to me that speaking up for children's charities is part of her extended role. I find it extraordinary that someone like her would expect a fee of that sort. You risk alienating your regular donors, if they read about this sort of thing."

Tim Costello, chief executive of the charity World Vision Australia and a social justice campaigner, condemned the secrecy surrounding Mrs Blair's fee. "Whether we like it or not, she's a public figure, and there needs to be transparency," he said. "People deserve to know what percentage of their money is going to charity."

Mr Markson said he would answer questions only via email ("I'm too busy to talk to you," he explained), but failed to respond within 48 hours.

Peter Foster's verdict is: "She seems to hurtle from one catastrophe to another." That is over-egging it, but even her well-wishers might be asking why she should jeopardise the kudos gained from raising so much money for charity by doing so for such large fees.

Comments