Max Clifford’s kiss-and-tell stories of politicians, pop stars and footballers are the lifeblood of many a tabloid newspaper. As he launches his own autobiography, the most powerful man in PR tells James Silver why it’s not about settling scores
Monday, 15 August 2005
For every red-top Sunday breakfast splash, Clifford claims to turn down “dozens” more stories – most of which would have editors drooling while fumbling for the chequebook. For every lap-dancer with a tale of high jinks and illicit romps on whose behalf he picks up the phone, many others are shown the door. Some don’t even get to the end of their first stammering, speculative phone-call to the receptionist. Something I witnessed as I waited for the interview to start.
“I’m not being flash, but I don’t need the money,” says the PR man, whose unique and profitable brand of scandal-midwifery has secured him 156 newspaper front pages in the last 18 months alone. “What people don’t understand is that more than 75 per cent of my business is conventional PR. It’s representing property companies, cosmetic surgeons and people like Simon Cowell and Peter Jones [from BBC2’s Dragons’ Den]. It’s keeping stuff out of the papers. The rest is the side that people are aware of.”
The sun is streaming into his New Bond Street offices. A potential story is being picked over by one of his team in the meeting room next door. Another client is waiting on the balcony. Jude Law’s now infamous nanny, Daisy Wright, is expected, too. Clifford, 62, is luxuriously tanned, relaxed and in a reflective mood. “It’s very easy for me to find out a lot about people,” he says with a faint hint of Bond-villain menace. “There’s a lot of people I could have exposed. But most of the time I choose not to. I weigh it up. I make up my own mind. OK, so a chairman of a bank has been playing away. But does he really deserve to have his whole life destroyed because of it? I don’t think so. Is it important that you know that a certain star is gay? In my view, no. You look at the pluses and the minuses.”
But the scandal merchant is about to do a kiss-and-tell of his own. Next month his autobiography Max Clifford: Read All About It hits the shelves, and despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s bound to cause a degree of jitteriness throughout the worlds os media, showbiz, sport and politics and have tabloid editors (and their predecessors) twitching by their phones. Published by Virgin and co-written by Daily Mail feature writer Angela Levin, the battle for newspaper serialisation rights will be bitter and bloody.
In his early PR years Clifford represented the cream of A-list celebrities including The Beatles, Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali and Frank Sinatra. He’s unwilling to say how much he is being paid but a separate line of enquiry reveals he received an advance of £400,000, with at least as much again expected from serialisation rights.
“I’ve been asked to do a book many, many times and always said no,” he says in his gruff voice. “I don’t have the time, don’t have the inclination, don’t have the discipline and I don’t need the money. Angela Levin, an old mate from way back, one of the journalists I trust – there’s still a few – said that Virgin had just produced a wish-list of books and I was number one. She said: ‘I’ll do all the work, all the research, all the writing, you just re-write it.’ It wouldn’t have happened any other way.”
Which newspapers are bidding? “All of them,” says Clifford evenly. “But when I’m ready the decision will be taken very quickly and simply.” In the light of accusations that Piers Morgan breached journalistic trust by revealing off-the-record conversations and meetings in his best-selling diary-based memoirs The Insider, how anxious should editors be about the contents of Clifford’s book? “They know me well enough,” he snaps in a flash of irritation. “I’m not that kind of a person anyway. If I wanted to relay secrets I could have retired 10 years ago. With what I know about people – because people come to me for help…” He trails away.
“There will be one or two big revelations. But psychologically, you can’t be as lucky and enjoy life as much as I do and then want to have a pop at people. Yes, you have your skirmishes; yes, you have your wars. That’s business. There are lots of journalists who have shaken my hand and given me their word and then gone back on it. It would be very easy to show them up for what they are and what they did. But I’ve no wish to destroy someone’s career.”
So this isn’t about settling scores. Nor has he kept a diary. “Angela has got most of it from other people. Family, friends, clients, agents. She’s got a great Sinatra story from the early days. Everyone she’s spoken to has phoned me and said ‘Max, is it all right if I talk to her?’ It’s lovely to have that kind of trust.”
Trust is something Max is big on. To the consternation of lawyers, he has never had contracts with his clients. “A handshake is good enough for me,” he says. It’s becoming pretty clear by this stage that we shouldn’t expect a dirt-dishing warts-and-all story from Britain’s best-known PR. Clifford is far too canny an operator. Over the years, given his line of work, he’s accumulated a lot of powerful enemies, many of whom would like nothing more than to see him brought down, preferably with his trousers round his ankles and each arm wrapped around an underage lap-dancer.
To his credit, he says that he considers himself “fair game” for any hack wishing “to do a Max Clifford” on him. “So long as they say what a wonderful lover I was and I did it 18 times a night, then good luck to them! What difference does it make? Some of the nicest, kindest people I know are serial adulterers. Men and women.” Brave words, but given his alliances with editors, it isn’t surprising that nothing really damaging has so far found its way into print.
“There have been plenty of people out there trying to do a job on me. Particularly when I played a part in bringing down the last Tory government, revealing stories about Tory sleaze. A lot of rich and powerful people didn’t want that to happen and saw me as public enemy number one. And a few editors of Tory papers tried to have a go. They were sending their reporters all over the world to ask about my days as a music PR, whether I was involved in orgies at Woodstock, that kind of thing.”
For a moment he lets his guard down. “Have I always been a good boy? No, I haven’t. I’ve had a wonderful time out there. It’s amazing to me that some of the things I got up to in those years haven’t surfaced. But I’ve got a lot of friends. A journalist once turned up on the doorstep of a photographer mate of mine from 25 years ago in LA. He was straight on the phone to me: ‘Max, remember those parties you used to arrange? Just to mark your card, there’s a journalist here asking about what we got up to.’ Over the years, I’ve had a lot of that.”
Clifford is fairly thick-skinned but it rankles with him that others in the PR industry sneeringly dismiss him as nothing more than a peddler of tabloid tittle-tattle. One high-profile PR executive recently told the Financial Times: “The fact that Max Clifford has become the spokesman for the PR industry … devalues and undermines what PR does.”
Clifford scoffs at the suggestion. “The difference is, many in the industry are desperate to be respected. I’m not. Every time I give a speech I say, ‘PR’s a wonderful game, it’s better than working for a living’ – they say it undermines them. I’m an embarrassment to them. But I don’t mind. I enjoy that role.”
He has, he claims, more scruples than many others in his field. “Years ago, I was approached to take on General [Sani] Abacha from Nigeria as a client. His representatives told me they would pay whatever I wanted to clean up the image of Nigeria. I said I’d only do it if they would let me take British journalists with me and show them the hospitals, the prisons, let them see everything and go everywhere. They said, ‘Of course you can’t do that!’ They made it clear it was a smokescreen. Let me tell you, a lot of other PR people would have been quite happy to take £1 million for doing it. I wasn’t.”
Similarly, he continues, he was approached to represent Michael Jackson six months ago by the singer’s “people”. “I said no, not for all the money in the world.” Why not? “I have my reasons.”
He leans forward at his desk. “A lot of PR is lies and deceit. You can call it whatever you want. You can call it being economical with the truth or being creative, but that’s what it is. The rest of the industry says: ‘We don’t tell lies.’ Oh, well in that case I’m the only person in PR that does. Do I distort the truth? Of course. Do I say, ‘No, my client isn’t gay’ when I know he is? Of course. Does telling the truth matter? If it’s showbiz, rock and roll, then absolutely not. Did Freddie Starr actually eat a hamster? No, he didn’t.”
Hamster-nibbling aside, the kiss-and-tell business is in rude health these days, partly fuelled by the Premiership football wage bonanza. Multi-millionaire footballers are specifically targeted by young women who visit nightclubs hoping to land a night of passion with a player so they have a story to sell in the morning. Clifford barely blinks at the cynicism of it all. “Two or three girls go to a club and they’ve already worked out that player is worth £50,000, that one’s worth £30,000…” he shrugs. “That’s the reality.”
When asked if he sees anything immoral in it all, he bridles: “Hold on just a second. Yes, it’s totally immoral. But you look at the situation. Is the footballer as guilty as they are? Does he do it all the time? You weigh it up and you decide whether to place that story or not.”
One of Clifford’s biggest scoops was David Beckham’s alleged affair with PA Rebecca Loos. Did he have any qualms about exposing the England star? “I didn’t have any doubt that she [Loos] was telling the truth when she came to see me. If David Beckham plays away he’s only got himself to blame. He’s old enough and ugly enough to know the risks he was taking. He’s got his lawyers, he’s got his PR people around him, he’s got loads of cover. So he shouldn’t moan if he gets caught out.”
Clifford, who says he has never touted for business during his career, was similarly convinced by nanny Daisy Wright’s story of her affair with Jude Law. Wright flew out to see the PR man in Marbella and spilled the beans by his pool-side. The actor has since admitted the infidelity, but how was Clifford so certain? My question prompts a rapid change of mood. ” Look, how many stories have I broken? Hundreds. How many have proved to be untrue? There isn’t one.”
He admits he had something of a spat with News of the World editor Andy Coulson – the purchaser of many a Clifford-fashioned scoop – over the paper’s coverage of one of his clients, former Atomic Kitten, Kerry Katona. That row reportedly led him to offer the Jude Law splash to the Sunday Mirror.
“There’s a lot of truth in that,” he concedes. “Andy is a professional friend of mine. Same as Tina Weaver, Richard Wallace and Rebekah Wade, and so on… And we have a very good relationship most of the time. But sometimes what’s in the interest of Andy Coulson is not in the interest of Max Clifford, bearing in mind that 75 per cent of my work is PR not stories. I don’t hate Andy Coulson, I don’t want to kick Andy Coulson. Without going into all the ins and outs of it, I thought his coverage of Kerry Katona was totally wrong. Fine. So we disagreed. If I was in his shoes I would have done exactly the same thing. You have to be big enough, mature enough to say that.”
Clifford’s secret with tabloid editors is that during the course of a year, he places stories with all of them, thereby keeping them all happy. “It’s a balance. The sensible thing is to spread them around. And over 12 months they are all, I think, better off for a good relationship with me than worse off.”
Born in 1943, Max Clifford left school at 15 without qualifications. He worked as a local newspaper journalist on the Merton and Morden News, where he eventually landed a record column. That column led to a call from EMI’s press chief Syd Gillingham (with whom he still regularly shares fish and chips) and a job offer at the label. One of the first acts he was handed to promote were The Beatles. Some time later Gillingham launched his own company, taking Clifford with him. By 1970, Clifford had set up on his own.
His wife, Liz, died suddenly of cancer two years ago, after 37 years of marriage. Today, he divides his time between his homes in Weybridge and Marbella. He goes swimming every day, plays tennis three times a week and – no doubt to the irritation of his foes – sleeps peacefully, usually woken by his cocker spaniels.
Clifford is a man with his own, very personal, rough-hewn sense of right and wrong. He arranges visits to TV studios for sick children and takes on clients – including the Scot on death row in Ohio, Kenny Richey, as well as numerous performers starting out – for nothing. He’s also the scourge of celebrity paedophiles. When I ask him if he has any regrets about exposing the sexual antics of pop impresario Jonathan King, who was recently released after serving a three-and-a-half year jail sentence for offences including sex with underage boys, he splutters: “Are you joking? I’m very proud of it.”
So proud of it, in fact, he takes a framed letter off the wall from Surrey police thanking him for his role in King’s conviction. “Am I happy? Extremely. Also with [another of his scoops] Gary Glitter. I don’t have any sympathy for paedophiles. People like King are clever. They got away with it for years. If you knew some of the conversations I had with his victims…” He shakes his head and doesn’t finish the sentence.
Another personal crusade was against John Major’s Conservative government. Clifford’s beloved only daughter, Louise, 34, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Over the course of three decades of treatment, he says he watched as the NHS was starved of funds and “destroyed”.
“I watched the quality going down and down. I watched nurses leaving, I talked to doctors in the small hours. I watched them destroy one of the things we are most proud of – the NHS. That’s not based on politics, just on what I saw day-in, day-out. My whole business was run from the hospital waiting room, once Louise was ill. She’s always been more important than all my clients. If they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.”
The Tory kiss-and-tell stories began to flow. And, once again, he has no regrets about the outcome. “It wasn’t planned. It was fate. People came to me with stories. I didn’t go looking. One story led on to another. And the word ‘sleaze’ became attached to the Tories. I believe – and I know they do – it played a big part in bringing them down. A lot of Tories hate me to this day. Which I have no problem with. But if it had been Labour, exactly the same rules would have applied.”
The interview comes to an end with the flurry of excitement surrounding the arrival of Daisy Wright. Currently minor kiss-and-tell royalty, she’s shy and terrified by the prospect of her imminent appearance on American television. But Clifford’s team have soon soothed her nerves.
More than the kiss-and-tells over the years – the stars he’s helped create and egos he’s promoted, all the webs he’s woven and little lies he uttered – as I leave his offices, I can’t help but feel that Max Clifford’s greatest creation of all was himself.
On his past
‘It’s amazing to me that some of the things I got up to in those years haven’t surfaced’
On the Loos/Beckham exposé
He’s old enough to know the risks… so he shouldn’t moan if he gets caught out
On the ‘Tory sleaze’ campaign
It wasn’t planned. It was fate. One story led to another. A lot of Tories hate me to this day