Richard Desmond: the power player who dealt his way to the top
The media mogul is more than happy to share stories from his colourful career
Richard Desmond: “Everybody has ethics, I’m sure Adolf Hitler had ethics. It’s about what you think is right.” Photograph: Peter Maciarmid/Getty Images
The Irish Times is being escorted to the top floor of the Northern & Shell office building in London by a hefty young man who says he “looks after” Richard Desmond. He is most pleasant, but there is something about the way he carries himself and the way his suit sits on his broad frame that suggests the “looking after” involves more protection than brewing Desmond’s green tea.
The notion of a bodyguard sits well with the many stories which the 63-year-old media mogul squeezes into his newly published autobiography The Real Deal. It is a caper of a book, detailing the scrapes and successes that have left the Jewish outsider from north London where he is today: the billionaire owner of OK! magazine, Express Newspapers and the Daily Star, among other assets spanning property, printing and lotteries. It also deals with some of the less complimentary rumours surrounding the man, whose succinct strategy for business meetings is “kill or be killed”.
His office suite sits on the edge of the City and boasts a fine collection of cream leather sofas and a compelling view of Tower Bridge, as well as an oddly large collection of doors. At one point, Desmond jokes that one of them leads to the cupboard in which he is said to have made an executive wait after making the mistake of being late for a meeting, but quickly adds that the story isn’t true. You’re still left wondering though, as Desmond well knows.
“It’s called colour, isn’t it? I wish more people had a bit of colour.”
After an initial tiny confusion between The Irish Times and the Irish Independent (an inquiry after the health of Denis O’Brien), we’re off with the interview, during which Desmond becomes more and more animated. He likes to address people by name, which in this case is “Uma”.
“This isn’t work, Uma, what we’re doing,” he says, and he is almost right, because spending an hour with the disarmingly jovial, entertaining and charming Desmond who is here today is far from painful. But then one again recalls the stories in the book of trapping business associates in headlocks to get what he wants and of threatening a gangster with a broken bottle in his early teens.
There’s also a curious tale about becoming embroiled with the Mafia – which Desmond says is another fabrication – before admitting that the worst side of his reputation can be useful. When his people have problems with business associates for example, they can often be diffused with a hint that “Richard can come and see you”.
“I don’t care. I want what I want and I won’t stop until I get it,” he says, smiling benignly all the while.
Until he sold Britain’s Channel 5 for £463 million last year, what he wanted, it seems, was to be a billionaire. He had paid £103 million for the station four years previously, so the sale price managed to tip him over the edge of his own ambition. For the first time in his already mega-successful career, he felt financially secure.
“A billion pounds of cash is, I won’t say untouchable but . . . You’ve seen it with the O’Reillys – it can go.”
His is referring to Sir Anthony O’Reilly, with whom Desmond partnered for years in the Irish Daily Star when O’Reilly still ran Independent News & Media and whose finances are now in a parlous state. The two are not, and have never been, friends.
“I didn’t like O’Reilly,” he says, claiming to have never properly met the former Independent chairman beyond an encounter after hearing him deliver a speech to media-buyers in London.
“He stood up and talked about rugby and Heinz Baked Beans,” he says. “He thought he was better than me.”
Playing the part
The belief that others think they are above Desmond is a recurring theme in The Real Deal, which is littered with references to whether people are “posh” or “very posh” and shows the author puts a lot of emphasis on how his contacts are turned out. He himself likes “Savile Row, double-breasted” and reckons the dress worn today by his interviewer (possibly her best one) cost “not very much”. He also reckons you can recognise posh people by their hair, even when they are dressed down, as so many tend to be these days, much to his disapproval.
“It’s the little things, isn’t it?” he says, gesturing to the “posh hair” of his PR representative to demonstrate his point. As for his own attire: “I’m playing the part, aren’t I?”
He has been described as “Britain’s greediest billionaire” by the National Union of Journalists for choosing not to give pay rises to his Express staff, hundreds of whose jobs were culled as he set about a £14 million cost-saving plan after buying the titles in 2000.
Personnel skills aside, Desmond is very proud of the Express titles, probably to a greater extent than he is of OK!, the lifestyle title gobbled up in hair salons around the globe, the 1993 launch of which he says was the most difficult point in his career.
The Daily Express was the paper his father read and was where his father started out as a circulation manager before eventually becoming a senior executive at cinema advertising company Pearl & Dean. And it is the Express titles that give Desmond a forum for his “crusades”, the campaigns “for a fairer Britain” that he says simply reflect what the British people want. Thus, the Express titles are vehemently anti-immigration, anti-EU establishment and, currently, anti-Camelot, the operator of the UK’s National Lottery.
On a typical day last week, the Daily Express led with “Outrage over lottery ‘rip-off’” after the National Lottery added ten balls to the pot, with the report citing accusations of “shameless greed”.
The fine line between editorial freedom and commercial gain comes in here, since Desmond is owner of the competing Health Lottery, a considerably smaller, loss-making enterprise that gives 20p of every £1 wagered to health-related good causes. He needs to stem its losses (£28 million in 2013) but to do so, he says he needs to raise the prize pot, a move prohibited unless he can sell more tickets.
It’s a chicken-and-egg thing – or it would be if Desmond hadn’t decided that this was his next “crusade” for the people and wasn’t planning to bid for the National Lottery licence next time it comes up.
“It’s the poor people who are buying lottery tickets. Millionaires don’t buy lottery tickets,” he says, failing to add that billionaires don’t buy them either, sometimes choosing to sell them instead.
The lottery approach is classic Desmond: he sees a business, likes it, takes it on and dislodges the incumbent. So it was with OK!, which he started in 1993 after a chance visit to the printer for opponent Hello!, who happened to mention that the Spanish-owned magazine beloved of minor European royalty was printing 800,000 copies. The first edition of OK!, beloved of minor UK television personalities, was launched just a few months later with a print run of 400,000. It is now available everywhere from Australia to Mongolia under licence and has the power to make, and possibly break, stars. The way Desmond tells it, for example, it was he who built the David and Victoria Beckham brand via the pages of OK!.
By the time he launched the magazine, he was already a seasoned publisher, having started out on music titles, which is probably where his heart, but not his money-making brain, still lies. His first proper career was in advertising sales where he excelled (“I turned out to be a bit of a superstar at telesales”) before reaching his 16th birthday, a timing snafu that meant he was unable to legally drive the company car.
However, his aptitude for eking out opportunity came to the fore even earlier, when he took a job in a pub cloakroom aged 13 and upped the game by raising the ticket price and doubling the number of coats on each hanger, without feeling the need to share his plan with the pub-owner.
“I have to confess that I didn’t feel bad about doing any of this. My mother and I really needed the money,” he writes in his autobiography.
This line illuminates much of what drove – and still drives – Desmond to rack up the business deals, of which there have been so many. As a teenager, he was living with his mother in a grotty flat after his parents had divorced and his father’s top-notch career had collapsed around him. Cyril Desmond had become deaf in his mid-40s, when his youngest son was still very small, having contracted a bug while on business in Africa. This, coupled with his father’s gambling problem, left a mark on the young Richard, making him determined to provide for his mother and leaving him (almost) eternally afraid of it all going wrong.
“I think it’s because of my father. I always say I’m scared of the park bench.”
Pop psychology aside, it is a fact that Desmond had set his mother up in a house he had bought for £1,000 before he even turned 20 and, with that out of the way, he was looking for the next play.
“You had to make some money. You had to look after your Mum and you had to look after yourself. That’s the first thing and then the second thing is: how am I gonna do that?”
One such route came via a chance foray into the “top shelf” in the 1980s with the licence for US adult magazine Penthouse. This, and subsequent deals to publish titles including Asian Babes and Readers’ Wives, will follow Desmond to his grave, as he rejects at every turn the notion that he is a porn magnate. This is despite the fact that his company, Northern & Shell, continues to operate a number of adult television channels and still has Page Three in the Daily Star, even though the magazines are long gone.
The pornographer description “irritates me”, he says, suggesting “every media group has adult entertainment of some sort” and adding that his channels are fully regulated.
“I find it bizarre that they go on about Asian Babes, which sold 3,000 copies a month when you’ve got a magazine like OK! which could sell two million a week,” he says, adding that pornography is, for him, about prostitution and shady massage parlours, not regulated television channels.
It is another window on the world according to Desmond, who has a knack of defining things the way he thinks they should be defined and then happily moving on. He is known for similarly shifting sands when it comes to “ethics”, a word that came to haunt him after a legendary 2012 appearance at Britain’s Leveson Inquiry into the practices of the press. Having been asked if he was involved personally in establishing ethical standards at his newspapers, his response was vague.
“Ethical . . . I don’t know what the word means, perhaps you would explain what the word means, ethical.”
The ethics thing still irks Desmond.
“What a stupid question he asked me. Everybody has ethics, I’m sure Adolf Hitler had ethics. It’s about what you think is right,” he says. For example, in relation to Penthouse, his “ethics, or justification, or whatever you call it” came in the fact that the magazine was stocked by reputable newsagent chains such as WH Smith.
He mentions the “get on, get honest and get honourable” philosophy in his book, and it certainly chimes in part with his life, with the “honourable” part reflected in his considerable philanthropic efforts through children’s charities, Jewish organisations (he practises Liberal Judaism), and most significantly, the funding of a centre for children at an eye hospital.
He has also spread his financial warmth over the political sector, having donated in his time to Labour, the Conservatives and, most recently, bestowing £1.3 million on Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which bombed at the recent UK election. The Ukip electoral performance is of little consequence, as Desmond tells it, whereas the promise of an EU exit referendum, undoubtedly hastened by the Ukip threat to the Conservative base, is important.
“I take full credit [for the referendum]. I really do,” he says, quickly adding that of course he means the Express titles take full credit. I like the fact we’re having an EU referendum. If I hadn’t had the papers, could I have got the referendum? Probably not. And it’s very important to this country.”
He claims, however, to be undecided on whether the UK should part ways with its EU pals.
“I’m not sure whether we should be in it or not in it because we haven’t heard all the facts,” he says. He later adds: “My feeling is we need to negotiate hard . . . The Greece situation is an example. They want to keep Greece in so desperately and it’s going to cost us all in Britain so much money.”
And then he’s off on immigration (“nothing wrong with Romanians”), EU budgetary contributions, EU laws and all the rest. He also indulges in some, ahem, light criticism of UK prime minister David Cameron, with whom Desmond and his wife, Joy Canfield, are pictured in “the book”, along with, somewhat inexplicably, Simon Cowell.
“Cameron, I think, is a weak bloke. I think the trouble is, I met him when he was a PR man at Carlton Television, but he wasn’t a great PR man.” He expands, apparently oblivious to the presence of his own PR man only inches away: “A PR man to be the prime minister says it all, doesn’t it?” He goes to apologise to said PR man, joking that his misstep is “like something Farage would do”, while dismissing any political ambitions of his own.
These days, the Desmond pace is certainly less frantic as his billionaire status appears secure and his company remains profitable (£37 million operating profit in 2013). Desmond married former British Airways manager Joy, his second wife, a few years ago, and the two have a four-year-old daughter and a son born just this year. He is also due to become a grandfather, with his eldest son Robert (26) expecting his first child. He is relishing his second chance at fatherhood.
“I love it. I’ve actually got time now. Yesterday morning, I took her [his daughter, Angel] to school. Last week, they had a little play where they were all singing. It made my day.” This compares to life when Robert was young, when his attitude was more “sports day, schmortz day”.
“Even when I’d take him to the the park, he’d be on the swings and we were losing so much money on OK!, I’d be sitting there watching him but my whole mind was, ‘How am I gonna sell more copies?’”
It’s clear from the statistics with which Desmond sprinkles his conversation that selling copies is still on his mind, but he claims selling actual newspapers isn’t at the forefront of his agenda.
“We have approaches all the time, Uma. We’re a very successful newspaper group. And the digital side is growing incredibly: this month we did 160 million page views; two years ago, we were doing 50 million page views.” He says online advertising revenue is growing, having climbed from £500,000 a month last year to £1 million now. He’s also involved in a few media-for-equity deals through sites that might allow you to sell your house cheaply, rent it or even rate girls.
“You’ve gotta move with the times,” he says, although, nothing if not focused, his “dream” still relates to his desire to “give the British public a fair deal on lotteries”.
Despite all the bluster, he still hesitates when asked if he has finally dismissed the park bench from his nightmares, saying he only truly realised how good he was at doing deals last year when the Channel 5 sale closed. “It’s been such a struggle,” he says. “Up until last year, I always felt we were on the edge of going broke.”
Name: Richard Desmond
Position: Executive group chairman of Northern & Shell and self-declared “maverick”.
Family: He is married to Joy Canfield and has two sons , Robert (26) and Valentine (five months), and one daughter, Angel (4).
Why is he in the news? He has just published his autobiography, The Real Deal.
Something you might expect: He forged his date of birth at 13 to get his first job.
Something that might surprise: He describes his infamous management style as “hands-off, democratic, easy Richard”. (It turns out he is joking.)