Few public figures command less respect in modern Britain than Max Clifford. His name is synonymous with tabloid sleaze. No sex scandal appears complete without his money-grubbing involvement. He is the man to whom the tackiest z-list celebrity turns when she is seeking publicity over her latest bottom-baring, bed-hopping antics.
In the kingdom of empty hype and press excess, Clifford is king. With his bulging contact book, gift for the telling phrase, and utter ruthlessness, he is the supreme practitioner of the spin-doctor's art.
His victims read like a who's who of the establishment: David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer and Sir Peter Harding, the former defence chief who resigned in 1994 after one of Clifford's clients, the notorious Lady Bienvenida Buck, sold the story of their affair to the press for £300,000. Little wonder, then, that Mellor once called Clifford the "sleazeball's sleazeball", while the ex-Tory MP Edwina Currie even more graphically described him as "that little turd."
But do people always match up or down to their public image? Is it possible that, sometimes, master spin doctors are not very good at spin doctoring their own public persona?
I met Max Clifford last year after being commissioned to produce a new biography of the cricketing legend Geoffrey Boycott. It would have been impossible to write about this subject without examining the court case in France in 1998, at which Boycott was found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend Margaret Moore. Clifford had acted in a PR capacity for Boycott at the trial. He responded promptly to my letter requesting a meeting, and was affable in our phone conversation. I called on his modest offices in Mayfair, where I had to go up a narrow staircase to an attic set of rooms above a ground-floor shoe shop and a first-floor hairdresser's.
When Clifford and I got down to our interview about Boycott, he was amusing and frank, telling me that he liked Boycott's lack of diplomacy. "I know a lot of smooth-talking bastards who are actually the nastiest people in the world. But with Geoffrey, what you see is what you get," he said. He also remembered his first words on meeting Boycott in 1998: "You were the reason I lost interest in cricket. Three hours of watching you bat was quite enough for me."
Clifford then added: "I like to think that Geoffrey and I have had a very good and honest relationship ever since."
Cynics might suggest that Clifford had a vested interest in turning on the charm to me, since Boycott is one of his clients. In talking to Boycott's biographer, he would want to present the best possible image. But this ignores the crucial point that there was no reason why Clifford should have been involved with Boycott at all.
Indeed, in the French case, Clifford was first approached, not by Boycott, but by Margaret Moore, the woman who claimed that Boycott hit her more than 20 times in the face while she was pinned to the floor of their hotel room in Antibes in October 1996. Only days after this alleged assault, Moore rang up Clifford and arranged to meet him at Claridges in London.
According to Clifford, Moore wanted to sell her story. Clifford turned down the opportunity to work for her, because her minor facial injury did not seem consistent with her tale of a savage beating.
Clifford's meeting with Moore made him eager to help Boycott when he was approached by the ex-cricketer in January 1998. "It was simple for me because I knew he was innocent. I knew a terrible injustice was happening." After that, Clifford went out of his way to assist Boycott, not just on the PR front, but even going to France to give evidence at Boycott's trial.
I left intrigued by the difference between Clifford's public sleazebag image and his private modesty. I looked into other aspects of Clifford's life and found a man committed to public service - whether it be campaigning for the NHS or attacking the hypocrisy of the establishment. In contrast to the host of sleazy stories he has orchestrated, his own personal life has been a paragon of virtue; he has remained with his wife, Liz, for 32 years and has supported their daughter Louise, who has been disabled since the age of six with rheumatoid arthritis. He says that it has been his experience of seeing Louise suffer in the NHS through at least 12 major operations that has driven his demands for government action on health care. Louise, now 28, works with him in the PR firm.
It is fascinating that Clifford, the ultimate spin-doctor, should have allowed his public image to have been so negative. Perhaps it is just another tribute to his morality that he has rarely used his brilliant skills on himself.