Captain Moonlight: From ideals to images

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The Independent Online
DES WILSON is all smiles, in his office. Des has put on quite a bit of weight since he helped found Shelter in the Sixties, since he campaigned for lead-free petrol and freedom of information, and chaired Friends of the Earth in the Eighties. Des has even put on weight since he ran the Liberal Democrats' election campaign in 1992. Now Des is vice-chairman, public affairs, of Burson-Marsteller, the big PR people, and his unit has been described by PR Week as 'the hottest ticket in town'.

In just over a year, Des has brought in more than pounds 1m of fees for Burson-Marsteller. His salary is over pounds 100,000 a year. Des, his hand-out informs you, is running the Lord Young-Richard Branson lottery bid (that's the one which sneaked all the publicity because it is non-profit-making and because Des got Desert Orchid to come along to Trafalgar Square for the launch). He has also been taken on by the TUC to help, image-wise. And he's not got long now, because John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, is due in half an hour.

There has been flak. Some people have purported to find an incongruity in ITN's Environmentalist of the Decade (the Eighties) working for a firm which has represented Union Carbide (after the Bhopal disaster) and Exxon (after the Valdez disaster), and whose clients include British Nuclear Fuels, Fisons, Glaxo and ICI. A defiant Des has been quoted as saying: 'My friends understand and f--- my enemies . . . I don't need to defend myself.'

But this is a decontexted Des: 'There is this image of me as a humourless bore. I'm not one of those people who go round being an angry man. I have never been tuned into the self-indulgent, sanctimonious side of the voluntary sector.'

So the real Des takes me through his career move. 'I was coming up 50. I had reached the point where people crossed the street when they saw me coming - 'here's Des with another campaign, another cause we must care about'. I had no pension, I had asked my family to sacrifice a lot over the years (Des has been married three times) and so I thought it was time to make some money.'

This is the Des who worked for the Liberal Democrats for nothing - and for precious little thanks - for two years, the Des who used to doss in cheap King's Cross hotels between the last meeting and the first breakfast meeting, the Des who had come from New Zealand wanting to watch a lot of cricket and movies and had managed very little of either.

It is a mark of Des's particular talents that none of this sounds defensive. The way Des tells it, he decided that he had done his bit for society, it was time to hand over and enjoy some of the other things in life, the monied philanthropist who sees the light in reverse.

He does point out, though, that his contract allows him a veto over whom he will work for; and that his clients also include Mencap, the big British overseas aid charities and a scheme to create a University of Lincolnshire, Des's new adopted county. (He also has a small flat on the Costa del Sol, paid for by his excursions into thriller writing, one set in Spain, the other in an election campaign.)

Des says that the Young-Branson lottery's commitment to good causes will be of more use than he ever was. Des talks about 'campaigning public affairs' and about still being an 'advocate at the court of public opinion' even if he no longer has quite the passion for the causes that hire him as for the causes that fired him. But he brings his enthusiasm, he says, and he still works quite hard: 6.30am start this particular morning, 7pm finish.

Ask him what he is most proud of, and it is his chairmanship of Friends of the Earth. Ask him what the next great campaigns should be, and he points to education and the health service. Always campaign for the attainable is Des's advice: 'I'm not saying you shouldn't have that great dream or ideal, but people who have changed the world at all are those who have recognised what is possible in their lifetime and their circumstances. If I've edged the world vaguely in the right direction I've done more than most people.'

And more than those criticising him now: 'I'll trade what I've contributed to society alongside anyone. There's an enormous sense of comfort knowing that you've done your bit. That's the advantage of doing it this way round. And I actually feel I'm rather entitled to enjoy myself.'

Nevertheless, you do feel that Des might just have one more big one left in him. I did try to get him interested in our Dirty Dogs Campaign, but, sadly, he was resolutely unfired. He continued to beam, though, even if John Edmonds had still not arrived.

(Photograph omitted)

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