As the days pass, more and more people are assuming that Hollinger International will be forced to sell the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator. Of the home-grown suitors, the favourite remains the pornographer, Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers. Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) is another potential bidder. Let me declare an interest. Although I write a column for the Daily Mail, I would be perfectly happy if a benign foreign publisher such as the Washington Post group acquired the Telegraph newspapers. My aversion to Richard Desmond is based on this simple fact ‘ that he has made his fortune partly out of publishing hard-core pornography.
Last week my colleague Matthew Parris disclosed that he is ‘rather relaxed about pornography’. Many people seem to be these days. Is Matthew really aware of the darker side of some of the things Mr Desmond has published? When the pornographer bought Express Newspapers in December 2000, the Guardian ran a magnificent series of articles about Desmond. The paper discovered that a company owned by him had registered a website which promised live heterosexual sex, live lesbian sex, as well as other images portraying a sex-crazed woman of 78, another who was pregnant and another who went by the name of Anal Annie. This is hard core, as the Guardian acknowledged in an editorial at the time. ‘[Richard Desmond] has made his money,’ the paper wrote, ‘out of what ‘ in any sensible use of the English language ‘ can only be described as hard porn. His magazines and websites are explicit and frequently repellent in their depiction ‘ in both words and pictures ‘ of women.’
The essence of hard-core porn is that it degrades women. It peddles a lie, which is that they are desperate for sex all the time ‘ and not just normal sex, but the kind which involves their humiliation and debasement before men. One of Mr Desmond’s publications called Spunk-loving Sluts says it all. I do not know whether such grotesque imagery helps to send off men to commit rape in the belief that every woman is gagging for it. Some researchers say that it does; others claim it does not. The damage that hard core does, it seems to me, is not so much to a few freaks and weirdos, but to the millions of basically normal people who are increasingly exposed to it. The lie of hard-core pornography ‘ that women crave sexual humiliation ‘ is likely to pollute the sexual imagination of men. Young men are probably particularly vulnerable since they have little experience to weigh against the partly alluring lie that pornography tells.
This is how Mr Desmond has made his money. Even now pornography accounts for a considerable portion of his profits. Does anyone care? Not Matthew, it seems. Certainly not Alastair Campbell, who was lunching with the pornographer only the other week. Nor Tony Blair, who has invited Mr Desmond to No. 10 and to Chequers, and accepted his ‘100,000 donation to the Labour party. Michael Howard thought fit to break bread with him a few weeks ago. Meanwhile the BBC totally misses the point in its chumpishly unworldly way by describing him as a ‘soft porn pornographer’. Even the Guardian, which saw Mr Desmond for what he is before anyone else, has gone easy on him, and recently published a largely sympathetic interview. The paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, is believed to have formed a slight acquaintance with the pornographer. Why should a person of refined sensibilities voluntarily choose to spend two minutes in the company of Mr Desmond? Perhaps Mr Rusbridger dislikes the Daily Mail so much that he is drawn to him on the basis that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. If so, it is a very misguided liaison.
It is certainly possible that Richard Desmond will not buy the Telegraph Group. I suspect he does not have quite as much money as he says he does. (On Wednesday the Financial Times carried an interesting story alleging that he has ‘dramatically reduced his tax liabilities by basing most of his broadcasting businesses in Jersey, even though the principal operations are in Britain’.) Like DMGT, Desmond would face an automatic referral to the Competition Commission which might take several months. A foreign bidder would have this advantage for Hollinger ‘ that there would be no long, drawn-out referral. So Mr Desmond may fail for reasons which have nothing to do with his background as a pornographer. But my point is that in a decent and civilised society his record in hard-core porn should of itself disqualify him.
Press proprietors are often not very nice people. Over the past century there have been bad ones, mad ones, crooked ones and vain ones. Matthew is right to say that a journalist cannot afford to be over-pernickety about the morality of the press baron for whom he works. But Mr Desmond is in a class of his own because he is a pornographer, and pornography, unless it merely features naked couples wandering hand-in-hand through cornfields, is an evil. And despite the (I hope temporary) silence of the Guardian, the idiocy of the BBC and the political calculation of Tony Blair, there are still millions of people in this country, and quite a few in Fleet Street, who think so.
And so to Soham. Day after day the tabloids and the broadsheets carry page after page of trial reports, and frequently ‘splash’ on the story. By my calculation, the Daily Telegraph has on one occasion cleared the whole of the front page, and the Independent twice, for reports of the trial. On Tuesday, in its broadsheet version, the Indy covered its entire front page with a transcript from the trial. Have they gone bonkers? That picture of Holly and Jessica in their Manchester United shirts has been used a hundred times, and will be used a hundred more.
Of course it is a deeply affecting story which should be covered in detail. It would be inhumane not to take it seriously, and I even think the Financial Times should get off its pedestal and take some notice. But this relentless wall-to-wall coverage is too much. It sometimes seems that there is nothing else happening in the world other than the Soham trial. The BBC News, Sky News and ITN are as obsessed as the newspapers. Perhaps they understand their viewers’ interest in this story better than I do, but I detect a weariness and revulsion among many people. Rightly or wrongly, they think they know the outcome. They grieve and they are sickened, but they do not want to be drawn into every detail.
When the trial is over, and the jury has delivered its verdict, what will we have learnt? Nothing more than we know already. None of us will ever understand why this happened. There can be no explanation. There never is in these matters. All the pages of reports, all the front pages and all the news bulletins will lead us to this melancholy conclusion. We will never really know why these two little girls died.