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9 July 2015

Richard Desmond’s autobiography is just a supersized OK! feature

Newspaper proprietors find it relatively easy to opt out of public life but Desmond is a salesman to the core.

By Helen Lewis

The Real Deal: the Autobiography of Britain’s Most Controversial Media Mogul
Richard Desmond
Random House Books, 342pp, £20

What is the point of an autobiography? It can be many things: a misery memoir (think Angela’s Ashes and its legions of imitators); a gossipy, name-dropping romp (step forward Rupert Everett); an opaque meditation on the nature of the self (Karl Ove Knausgaard in the house!); or a cheap attempt to wring cash out of a celebrity brand (or even a celebrity Brand). If you’re a woman, you can also usually get a book out of your painful struggle to have children, or to cope with having had children, or your attempts to come to terms with your thighs.

Richard Desmond’s autobiography is none of these. On receiving it, I flicked to the plates section, where I found a picture of Desmond at Auschwitz, pages after one of him giving the Beckhams a toaster as a wedding present. Other images commemorate great moments in the history of OK! magazine, Channel 5, the Express newspaper group and the Health Lottery, all current or former Desmond businesses, though there was no space for a gallery of the best covers from Asian Babes, 40 Plus or Readers’ Wives.

No, this autobiography is best understood as a supersized OK! feature. Supporting characters are marshalled into photogenic vignettes, unpleasant incidents are coated in syrup and the narrative is an unbroken arc towards the kind of bliss only available to those with great interior decor.

Desmond’s reputation is often described with the catch-all euphemism “colourful”. Reading The Real Deal, you suspect that he plays up to the caricature of the cigar-chomping bully to disguise the possibility that he actually is one. If there was a mention in here of the 2005 payout to the former Express executive editor Ted Young, who alleged that Desmond had punched him in the newsroom (an accusation the proprietor denied), I missed it. Similarly, here is the Guardian’s contemporary report of a 2004 meeting between Desmond and Telegraph executives at their shared printing plant in the Docklands: “People present at the meeting said Mr Desmond . . . strutted up and down the room holding his fingers to his lips and giving stiff-armed salutes . . . In a faux-German accent, Mr Desmond asked if the Telegraph bosses . . . were looking forward to being run by Nazis . . . He also called the Telegraph directors ‘f***ing c***s’ and ‘f***ing wankers’ among other names.”

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Here is Desmond’s version: “I added a little colour to the board meetings, including, regrettably, greeting the suggestion that our partners’ business might be sold to Axel Springer with my version of Basil Fawlty’s ‘Don’t mention the war’ scene.” He then complains that someone leaked the impression, “suggesting that I was anti-German. Well, I’m not.” Elsewhere, he tells the same self-aware joke, about possibly being descended from Genghis Khan but being much nicer than him, twice.

Newspaper proprietors find it relatively easy to opt out of public life but Desmond is a salesman to the core. What he seems to like selling most these days is a flattering version of himself. OK! magazine regularly features its gaffer in his charitable aspect, squeezing starlets companionably in the service of a good cause, and this book’s launch party occupied pages two and three of the Daily Express on 16 June. Barbara Windsor was there.

The Real Deal employs a one-two punch against criticism of its author, who has been attacked for swingeing cuts and miserable working conditions at his businesses: not only does Desmond give a lot to charity but he has had to acquire assets worth an estimated £1bn, you see, because of his terrible fear of poverty. This can be traced back to his father going deaf and the young Richard accompanying him to business meetings, attempting to bridge the gap between his father’s soundless world and the rest of humanity. The family was not well off and so Richard shifted for himself, getting a cloakroom job in a sketchy pub. From there, he moved into niche music magazines and eventually got his big break, securing the UK franchise for Penthouse. He later diversified into phone sex lines and adult magazines, before buying the Express newspaper group in 2000. In the past decade, the daily title’s circulation has halved to 500,000. The National Union of Journalists has urged him to sell the papers for the good of their staff.

Surprisingly for a man who has used the courts to defend his honour his unsuccessful libel action against Tom Bower, over a few lines in Bower’s Conrad Black biography, cost an estimated £1.25m Desmond cheerfully admits to a string of fibs and fiddles in his early life. In his cloakroom job, he brings in his own raffle tickets to skim off some of the takings; performing in a band in Southend, he nicks the seafront lights thinking they would “make us look like the Floyd”; a few pages later, he half-inches a barrel of beer from a university. Unfortunately, they have nothing to tap it with and he muses ruefully: “I was beginning to realise that crime really doesn’t pay.”

That might be the case but heavy doses of bullshit certainly do. Desmond’s tales suggest that he will say anything to clinch a deal. He tells one mark that he owns a Jaguar XJ to impress him and stages a charade of poverty in his office to stave off a creditor. He even seeks advice from a friend whose “businesses were prone to burn down at opportune times”, before being warned off doing “anything rash”: “It would only come back to haunt you,” his friend tells him.

What else do we learn from this book, amid the hokey business advice to pay attention to timing and not to rely too much on credit? Fighting through the gloss, a few uncomfortable facts emerge. First, public money has an importance few business leaders would like to acknowledge: the 1980s Docklands regeneration project allows Desmond to build an office at knock-down prices, safe in the knowledge that the DLR and other infrastructure will be along shortly to hike up its value.

Second, prime ministers will come to court you if you buy ink by the barrel. Tony Blair invited Desmond and his staff to a monthly lunch and was rewarded with a donation and the Express’s backing; Gordon Brown made the terrible error of showing no interest in Desmond’s thoughts about pension reform and lost the Express to the Conservatives. The paper now backs Ukip, although Desmond deems George Osborne “a man you could work with”. Will it matter who the Express backs in 2020? I suspect that if it doesn’t, Desmond won’t hang on to it. If no one’s buying his opinion, he will probably find something else to sell.