Just about this time of year, 42 years ago, Dunhill’s of London, the famed tobacconist, had a bold idea. Its president, Richard Dunhill, flew 32 backgammon players to New York and had them board the QEII for the return trip to Southampton. The backgammon players were a varied group. As with cricket of old, there were gentlemen and there were players. For players read hustlers and small-time con men. Among the gents were players such as Michael Pearson, now Lord Cowdray, some very nice Americans, like Porter Ijams, whose aunt was canonised, and yours truly.
The hustlers were a more amusing bunch. There was Jean-Noël Grinda, a French tennis player who was 6ft 7in tall and took up more space than a lifeboat, and his ‘close collaborator’ Philip Martyn, now posing as a gentleman (Grinda and Martyn were partners in crime but pretended not to know each other: ‘Je ne connais pas ce monsieur...’); a small dark person called Joseph Desiree Dwek, possessor of five passports — Israeli, Lebanese, Egyptian, British and US; the American Tim Holland, a golfer friend of Sean Connery; and the eventual winner, Charles Benson, an Old Etonian who made his living tipping losers for a grubby Fleet Street daily. (Benson was my first English friend and he cost me plenty.)
First prize was £100,000, an enormous sum at the time, and the ‘players’ took it very seriously. The rest of us were busy getting pissed and chasing the few women on board. (I didn’t win the tournament but won something better.) Meanwhile, back in Blighty, Nigel Dempster was announcing the results after each day’s play in his gossip column in the Mail — caustic comments included. Nigel had approached me and had asked if I would ring him daily with news from on board. I obliged, as I had just finished close to four years in Vietnam, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus reporting for Greek and American papers and was looking for an entry into Grub Street.
The trouble was that Nigel, a good friend, referred to me as ‘his spy on board’, without giving the poor little Greek boy any credit. One day, while recovering from the night before — a friend of Pearson’s had streaked the length of the QEII, and was lustily booed by us because his willy was that of a four-year-old — there was a knock on my cabin door. In came Clement Freud, bug-eyed and looking like Orlando Furioso. I was no friend of Freud’s and was not particularly pleased to be woken up by a dogfood salesman. ‘We have reason to believe that you have been leaking information about the tournament to the Daily Mail,’ said the dogfood man. I was so angry to be interrogated by that deeply unpleasant — and as it turned out child-molesting — creep that I advanced towards him but he sensed danger on the horizon and saw himself out unassisted.
There was nothing illegal or unethical in my ringing Nigel every day with the results. Dunhill’s, after all, was advertising the on-board tournament to its heart’s content. Freud was simply being Freud and sucking up to the QEII because Nigel had criticised the food and the service on board. Nothing very bad, just, as I had told him, that neither were up to par (I had crossed on the old Queen with my parents 20 years before).
Upon arrival in Southampton, Benson, deeply in debt but 100 grand richer, was greeted like a conquering hero by at least 20 bookies he owed vast sums to. He was allowed to keep enough change for a second-class train ticket home. I was invited to a meeting with a QEII PR man, but I told the gofer he sent to blow it out of his ass. Life returned to normal back at Aspinall’s where the whole scheme was hatched in the first place. Three years later I began this column for you know who.
The reason I bring all this stuff up is to show you how reporting has changed. Gawker.com has just been shuttered following a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan, backed by the billionaire Peter Thiel. I am on Hulk’s side. Gawker’s head, a Brit called Nick Denton, decided that European libel and privacy laws were too constraining, so he went to America and pushed the envelope to cringe-worthy levels. This was called transformational innovation, but it was dirt, pure and simple, that made Gawker a success and the sleazeball Denton a rich man. He claimed that his journalism ‘afflicted the comfortable’. That was pure bullshit. He dished nothing but dirt about people who didn’t seek the limelight — along with those who did — and promulgated a world view, like that of the odious Private Eye, that everyone has terrible secrets and is basically a crook. Attacking people without giving them the right to respond or the benefit of the doubt is pure, unadulterated sleaze in my book, practised by those not talented or good enough to play it straight. Basically, it’s close to blackmail.
Forty-two years ago I criticised some of the service on board the QEII and a bully like Freud tried to shut me up. Now we have people defending Denton, a man who has ruined lives and enriched himself through the pain he has inflicted on others. I’m as happy he was forced to sell as I was to tell Freud where to get off. But Denton’s sleaze does make Freud look like an angel by comparison.