PROFILE: Matthew Freud: A new gambit for the media grandmaster

Rhoda Koenig on the multi-millionaire publicist who manipulated acres of coverage for last week's `romance' between Geri Halliwell and Chris Evans
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The Independent Online
Last week Geri Halliwell and Chris Evans, London mayoral candidate Frank Dobson, and Helen Fielding, who has just published a sequel to Bridget Jones's Diary, got in the papers, but the publicity hat trick was scored by the man who put them there. Matthew Freud, the founder of Freud Communications, has himself become an object of public interest, in both his public and private life.

From its beginnings in 1984 in his flat on the outskirts of Notting Hill, Freud Communications, representing entertainment celebrities and corporations, has grown into a firm with a pounds 12m annual turnover. Five years ago Freud, who now lives in the heart of that swish district, sold it to the advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers for a sum that has been reported as two, five and 10 million pounds. "They're all inaccurate," he says, "but the last one is the closest. The real figure is a bit more."

Freud is, one reporter says, "a very shrewd and clever networker" and, in the intertwined development of his social and commercial life, has created a brilliant closed circuit. He lives with Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, who runs BSkyB, which Freud represented. Freud's company arranged the premiere of the movie Notting Hill, written and produced by Richard Curtis, who lives with Freud's actress sister, Emma. Curtis's house, (whose blue front door, in a stunning example of product placement, was used as Hugh Grant's in the film), was bought by Freud's estranged wife, Caroline. (She is now involved with a very non-Notting Hill type, Earl Spencer.) And perhaps the most famous recent Notting Hill resident, Peter Mandelson, is a close friend of Freud, responsible for the publicist's cosiness with the Labour Party, including membership of the board of the Millennium Dome.

As an even better-known PR man, Max Clifford, puts it: "Mandelson is possibly the second most influential person in this country because he has the ear of Tony Blair. So if it's known you are close to Mandelson, you are going to be successful." But Freud has a lot more than famous friends to recommend him. "He knows how to talk to newspaper people in their own language," says Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror. "He has a very sharp mind, he's got style, and he makes me laugh. He's equally adept at getting stories into the paper and keeping them out - if he wants something out, he'll offer you something better. He talks like a businessman - everything's a deal."

Persons not given to the perpetual optimism of the PR man might see in the career of the 35-year-old Freud the gloomy decline of late-20th-century ideals. Whereas his great-grandfather Sigmund sought to bring people truth, his father Clement, the chef and former Liberal MP, wanted to improve them, and his uncle, the great portraitist Lucian, transformed them into art, Matthew Freud... well, listen to one of the directors of his company: "We've been able to break out of the traditional PR bubble and sit at the table with advertising and marketing agencies. We've proven that public relations can be a discipline that works for larger marketing issues - for instance, a bottle of tomato ketchup doesn't have a voice. It can't be interviewed. But we can have a brand ambassador who represents some of the values that a brand represents, and give access to that person."

In other words, you pay a celebrity to say nice things about the ketchup, and if a magazine prints them you'll allow it to conduct an interview?

"That's a rather crude way of putting it."

Crude or not, the fact is that PR double- and triple-talk serves - and tries to legitimise - the interests of the client rather than those of the viewer or reader. "There's a whole choppy sea out there of smooth- talking publicists," says a prominent showbusiness reporter. "They'll talk to you over lunch for two hours, and when you analyse what they've said afterwards you wouldn't blow your nose on it. If someone from Freud gave me a story, I'd have to know what their agenda is. They're just peddling the corporate mentality." The corporate pound can also purchase enthusiasm from writers ostensibly paid for objectivity. "When Freud launched Planet Hollywood around the world," the reporter continues, "there were free air tickets for everyone, free hotels. There are not too many writers who go to bed with people like Matthew and who get up with clean sheets."

Certainly the techniques of the spin doctors are coming in for more scrutiny, as traditionally cynical newsmen angle their stories for an increasingly cynical public. The eight-day wonder of the Halliwell-Evans "romance" was, in a kind of post-modern ironic paradigm, ballyhooed, dissected, ridiculed, and finally exploded - but always at great length in the public prints. The consensus, even before Freud and Halliwell commented separately, "It was nothing to do with me", was that Freud had engineered the very public canoodling on behalf of his clients to boost her new record and Evans's radio-audience share. (If so, the first plan worked; the second didn't.) "I believe they were actually having a relationship," Morgan says. "At this point in his career, Matthew doesn't need to create stories like that." But, real or not, the story, says Clifford, "was not a successful stunt. She's cheapened herself, and he hasn't done himself any favours. The public think they'll do anything for publicity." Freud himself deplores the unnecessary and inappropriate media interest in behind-the-scenes arrange- ments. "I don't think the reader wants to know, for instance, that the celebrity had copy approval," he says.

Freud plays down the fact that phone calls in aid of Dobson's candidacy were discovered to be coming from his office. "I'm just letting people from his campaign use my phones at the weekend. My contribution is really to enrich BT" - unlike Dobson, an official Freud client. "As a member of the Labour Party, I think it important that the first holder of that office be someone solid and stable, someone who can work to create a powerful post, a safe pair of hands." Dobson, though, looks more and more like a safe hand-puppet - Clifford says the participation of Freud in the campaign creates "an unnatural and unholy alliance", as far as supporters of the gruff and old-fashioned candidate are concerned. "I don't understand what Matthew's doing with someone like Dobson, who's his polar opposite," Morgan says. "Image matters a lot to Matthew. The last time I saw him, after three minutes he pulled out his black American Express card and said there were only 2,000 in the entire world who had them. I refrained from pulling out mine because I didn't want to spoil his big moment."

Pulling out one's credentials for a gleeful comparison with a male friend's may seem like adolescent behaviour, especially for a multimillionaire, but Freud retains a fizzy but insecure youthful persona. While he now laughs off his teenage troubles as typical rebelliousness, it is hardly typical of boys bright enough to get into Westminster School to decide not to attend university, or to be arrested and fined for possessing cocaine and cannabis with intent to sell.

Freud's brush with the law apparently shook him up and straightened him out. He worked as a publicist for RCA Records and then, barely out of his teens, went out on his own. Along with managing the interests of Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Channel 4 and Granada, Freud set up, with another client Paula Yates, Planet 24, the company that produced the television programme The Big Breakfast. With the cow-slicing artist Damien Hirst he revamped the old Soho restaurant Quo Vadis and opened the Pharmacy, a Hirst installation serving roast cod and banana crepes to patrons ironically seated next to displays of Alka-Seltzer and Anusol.

In the past year Freud has become increasingly well known. He says this is making his job difficult, as clients don't want their PR man getting publicity of his own and drawing attention from them. Max Clifford disagrees. "The more public I've become, the more successful I've become." He considers that fame is an advertisement, but of course "it depends on how you handle it. You don't want to be well known for being an idiot. You can be the best PR in the world, but someone thrusts a microphone and camera in your face, and it can be very daunting." This theoretical phrasing is a none- too-subtle dig at Freud's touchiness - he has sometimes responded to even slightly critical stories in a heavy-handed way, and once flew into a rage, ending a relationship with a journalist who questioned the integrity of what was indeed a rather dubious client.

"That is one way to behave," says Clifford. "But nine times out of 10 it's not the right way."

Freud may be in the process of easing himself out of public relations, however. He's certainly branching out, becoming "a principal rather then a consultant", using the expertise he has acquired from years of advising. His new interests include Magic Moments, an Internet company for "hosting solutions"; a company producing on-line TV listings; a property company with designer Philippe Starck; Toyzone, a business selling playthings on-line and in shopping malls and Granada service stations; and a company that combines Pharmacy with an American group that will create new high- style restaurants.

All this incorporating may mean that Matthew Freud will not only start to talk like a businessman but to act like one, too. Piers Morgan, indeed, says he believes, "that Matthew's realised that he's in this for the long haul. It used to be that I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him."

But now?

He considers.

"I don't think he's lied to me for some time."