When Richard Desmond acquired the Daily Express four years ago there was an outcry. That committed Christian, Tony Blair, immediately had the pornographer turned press baron round for tea, but perhaps that was only to be expected. Almost everyone else was appalled that a man who had made his fortune out of such publications as Spunk Loving Sluts should have acquired a national newspaper. Foremost among Mr Desmond’s critics was the Guardian, which ran a magnificent series of articles about him. It discovered that a company owned by him had registered a website which promised live heterosexual sex, live lesbian sex, as well as other images too disgusting to mention in the first paragraph of a magazine article. In an editorial at the time, the Guardian remarked that Mr Desmond had ‘made his money out of what — in any sensible use of the English language — can only be described as hard porn’.
Four years on it is very difficult to find anyone with a harsh word to say about Mr Desmond. He has been assimilated into English life, and is regarded as almost respectable. The Guardian, his former persecutor, has become his friend. On Monday the newspaper allowed him to write a self-serving article in its pages in which he blew his own trumpet. The Daily Express, so he informed us, had been turned into a triumph under his guidance. (In fact it has lost sales, but is more profitable as a result of ferocious cost-cutting.) I particularly admired the way in which Mr Desmond described the magazines that had made his fortune — and enabled him to buy the Daily Express — as ‘adult and other specialist titles’. This was a notably coy reference to unambiguously pornographic magazines such as Horny Housewives, Big Ones and Asian Babes.
We can only speculate as to why the Guardian should have clasped Mr Desmond to its bosom, if that is the appropriate image to use of a man who has made a fortune out of bosoms, and a lot else besides. The most likely explanation is its hatred for the Daily Mail, which Mr Desmond also hates, though for reasons of commercial rivalry rather than out of any ideological disdain. (I should mention again that I write a column for the Mail, though I can assure readers that this has no bearing on my feelings for Mr Desmond.) From the moment he bought the Express he has been throwing rotten cabbages at the Mail and they have been throwing them back, though there was a temporary truce after things had got especially nasty. One of the ironies of the Guardian’s rapprochement with Mr Desmond is that its executives would be even more appalled by the Express, if they bothered to read it, than they are by the Daily Mail. Under its new editor, Peter Hill, it resembles an uncouth kid brother who takes a blunter line on illegal immigration, the iniquities of taxation and Mr Blair’s veracity, and is even more apocalyptic about falling house prices and the thousand other perils that threaten modern civilisation. Needless to say, Mr Desmond is no longer welcome at No. 10 for tea and biscuits.
The assimilation of rough diamonds into the establishment is part of the familiar pattern of British life, and I look forward to the day when Lord Desmond lectures us about declining moral standards. All the same, I have to pinch myself from time to time. I had some trouble with the following sentence in an interview with Mr Desmond by Ray Snoddy in Monday’s Independent: ‘He has come a long way since launching music magazines and then boosting his fortunes with adult magazines — or, as his detractors would have it, pornography.’ This seems to imply that it is merely a matter of opinion as to whether Spunk Loving Sluts should be described as pornography, and that those who do so may have an axe to grind. Mr Snoddy reminded us that Mr Desmond has sold his so-called specialist magazines, though not his ‘subscription-based Fantasy television channel’. Dear old Dr Snoddy is probably unaware that the Fantasy Channel pumps out material which, so I am assured, is every bit as pornographic as the magazines which Mr Desmond is anxious to tell us he has sold. The channel is advertised in the Daily Star, which Mr Desmond also owns.
In fact there are three channels. The contents of one, Television X, appears in the Star’s listings, and it is worth quoting a typical evening’s viewing. ‘10.10 C*ck Hungry Whores. 10.30 Lesbo Girls. 11.10 Hot Totty. 11.30 Single Sex. 11.50 Up Your Way. 12.30 P*ssy Malone. 1.40 Teacher’s Pet. 2.50 Nineteen Video Magazine. 4.10 Butt Quest.’ All this is available to anyone with Sky Television, which is controlled by that other great press baron, Rupert Murdoch.
Clasp Mr Desmond to your bosom if you will. (The reason for the publicity in the Independent and the Guardian, by the way, is that the Daily Express has just moved offices, and Mr Desmond has paid himself a dividend of £46.2 million.) It is the pretence that he is not really a pornographer that is so galling. He was, and he is. He sold his porn magazines for commercial reasons, not moral ones. He has the cheek to refer to ‘the subscription-based Fantasy Channel’ in his Guardian article, as though it is on a par with subscription channels that offer tips on gardening or shopping. Richard Desmond is not, I happen to believe, a particularly gifted newspaper publisher, but that is another story. The point is that the Guardian’s new-found friend, and owner of the Daily Express, is a pornographer, and no one should pretend otherwise.
Two weeks ago I suggested that the management of the Independent had asked rival publishers whether they were interested in buying a 30 per cent stake in the paper. This was denied by Ivan Fallon, the Independent’s chief executive, in a letter to this magazine last week.
How odd. I have been told that the Independent did have talks with at least one newspaper publisher. Of course it may be that Tony O’Reilly or his representatives did not offer precisely 30 per cent. But talks did take place, and they were not idly discussing the future of newspapers.
Will Mr Fallon deny this in print? His silence will be taken as confirmation that such talks have, in fact, taken place.
In his rollicking defence of himself in this magazine last week, Boris Johnson mentioned that I had recently asked him for a pay rise, which he claimed had been granted. Great news. His purpose, I think, was to make me seem ungrateful for having trousered this generous gift one moment before writing an article the next which was in some respects critical of him. Boris forgot to mention, however, that I have been receiving the same comparatively modest fee for more than six years. I believe this may be a record.