Max Clifford: the circus master

When Max Clifford signed Jade Goody, she was a fading reality star. Her cancer brought her to the front pages, with Jack Straw and even Gordon Brown offering support. But is she being exploited? And if so, by who?

"It's organised chaos," Max Clifford tells an Irish journalist with whom he's doing a live radio interview over the phone. He's talking about the arrangements for Jade Goody's wedding tomorrow, but he could equally well be referring to his own small office in Mayfair, which is accommodating the ebullient Clifford, seven members of staff (all female), three camera crews and numerous packages which members of the public have sent to be forwarded on to Goody, a hate-figure turned national icon.

The Irish radio interview goes well, except that he can't remember the name of the interviewer, which is Bláthnaid. "Don't worry, I'll just call her sweetheart," he tells his assistant. Everyone is sweetheart, or occasionally sunbeam. Impenetrable phone calls interrupt our conversation. The first apparently involves Clifford giving the story of Goody's wedding cake, which is being made by the hyperexpensive London restaurant Sketch (another Clifford client), to one of his media chums. The next sounds like it's someone trying to prise information about another of his high-profile clients, Alfie Patten, the "baby-faced dad", out of him, but he is giving nothing away. Except the phone, which he hands to his secretary to save us further disruption.

With the Goody and Alfie stories going full pelt, this has been one of those weeks in which Clifford appears to have been behind every headline. As bizarre as the photos of the youth's estranged father, Dennis Patten, wearing a devil mask might have looked, there was something very familiar to the placard he held: "No comment. Ring Max". Yet Clifford stresses that this is only the all-too-visible part of his business. "I have been just as busy this week on Simon Cowell as on either of those two because of a particular story, a business story, which was coming from America that I've been trying desperately to stop and that we so far have stopped."

The point he repeatedly makes is that he is running a serious business - "PR is about 80%, people coming to me with stories about 20%" - but that all anyone is ever interested is are his more lurid dealings with the media. His work for banks, restaurants and property firms may pay the bills, but it's his role in orchestrating spectacular tabloid scoops - who can forget "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster" and "Mellor Made Love in Chelsea Strip"? (not Clifford, the framed front pages of both adorn his office wall) - that have brought him fame, or, if you believe that he is part of the cheapening of public discourse, notoriety.

The Alfie story, it seems to me anyway, is likely to be closer to the notoriety end of the spectrum. Parents apparently cashing in on teenage son's stupidity has to be a morally hard sell, and I can't quite fathom why he got involved. "Had they come to me in the first place," he says, "I would have said, 'Keep it between the families, sort yourselves out, sort the little one out, don't go public, don't talk to anybody,' as I do frequently when people come to me. 'It's not in your interest. You might make a few thousand pounds from this, but believe me you'll have a nightmare and you'll be torn apart, because apart from anything else if you do an exclusive everybody else is your enemy. So short-term gain, long-term pain.' That's what I would have said, but by the time they came to me it was too late."

They hadn't initially come to him. Someone had given the story to the Sun, a moral panic had ensued, and only then did Alfie's parents ask Clifford for help. "There was everyone camping out - I'd like to tell you the full story but I can't," he says. "Shall I say they weren't happy about a lot of the things that were going on, and what they were reading and hearing, so it was a question of saying, 'Well, we'll do our best to control as much as we can as quickly as we can.'

"There's nothing in it for me from a financial point of view, but I felt, I suppose, a bit sorry for them. I feel I've been able to help them make the best of a bad situation. It's difficult to understand how the whole thing works unless you've had experience of it. They basically thought they had a story, they'd get themselves a few thousand pounds, and that would be it." Once the Sun and the News and the World started to trade blows about who was the real dad it manifestly wasn't it. Even Clifford himself openly doubts whether Alfie is the true father: "It's possible he is the father, but ... my money would be that he isn't." All Clifford could do was try to contain the firestorm. "I've already stopped some things that would have been even more damaging."

I don't find any of this very convincing: Clifford says he isn't being paid, and he clearly thinks the parents have made a mistake in going public. My guess is there are two other reasons. First, the challenge. When I suggest this is a no-win situation for a PR man, he says: "I love that. I like these kind of situations." Clifford once likened what he did to "playing 15 games of chess a day", and here he has a sticky position from which to try to extricate himself.

The second reason is that, to mix games, bargaining on behalf of Alfie and his parents gives Clifford another set of chips to throw into the pot. "The reality is that being at the centre of so many things is extremely advantageous in lots of different ways," he says. "It's trading, it's awareness, it's all kinds of things." What becomes clear talking to Clifford is that the way he operates is to have a vast store of stories and contacts which he can trade off against each other. He says stopping stories is more central to what he does than placing them, but sometimes to stop a story you need to be able to offer something in return.

I find it hard to grasp that journalists who have their tentacles around a story will let go, but he tells me how it works. "The good thing about being in my position is that you know so many things. Sometimes a story that was so important for you to stop five years ago isn't now. It's changed. You can suddenly reveal that happened, so you, the journalist, have got a much bigger story."

He even implies that occasionally the manipulation comes close to bribery. "Most journalists would sell their own mothers for a great story, but sometimes you're able to make them an offer that they think they shouldn't refuse." A leg up the career ladder, a word in the ear of a friendly editor. "I'll find them a job or I'll come up with something that means they won't lose their job."

Clifford also sees his relationship with the media as one of mutual exploitation. "I would like to think that most media people I work with, at the end of the year, would think, 'Well, we had a good year with Max Clifford and we've used him as much as he's used us.'"

The lies which he says he has to tell on behalf of his clients do not upset that yearly stocktaking. "It's a game and they [the media] understand the game, and if you take every game as 12 months, as long as after 12 months they're in front from your relationship then they're quite happy. They might well know I'm lying anyway. Just as they lie to me all the time. Journalists are just as devious as PR people."

Happily, the Goody story, which culminates in tomorrow's wedding to Jack Tweed, requires no dissimulation. If Alfie is a no-win situation for Clifford, Goody has become a gimme, though it was anything but when he took the former Big Brother celebrity on a year ago. "Everything had gone and her career was at rock bottom," he recalls. "She came to me and said, 'Will you look after me?' I was happy to. I knew her well enough to know that she was far more sinned against than sinning, so I started to try to rebuild her career."

Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August, it was reported to be "advanced and life-threatening" in September, and last week Clifford announced it was terminal. The imminence of death has revived her career and put to flight those who criticised her as a creature born of reality TV. "I think there are a lot of journalists out there. That maybe have actually got a twinge of conscience, which doesn't often happen, having said the things that they said, particularly initially - saying it was just a publicity stunt."

Goody's reaction at being struck down in this way at 27 and with two young sons has been impressive and moving, but how does the artificiality of Sunday's public wedding - OK! has paid £700,000 for exclusive magazine coverage, Living TV £100,000 for broadcast rights - square with that stark reality?

"I don't think there's any artificiality about it at all. It's being done in the media spotlight; she's lived in the media spotlight; it comes naturally to her. She loves it; it fulfils her ... You're talking about Jade Goody. It might not be a genuine event for you, but for her it's extremely real, and it's probably the one thing she's focusing on now that gives her an awful lot of pleasure. It's been the biggest single factor in her staying focused, staying positive, enjoying life."

Equally important, in his eyes, is that the money from the wedding and the christening of her sons will ensure their future, and that coverage of her plight has encouraged more women to get cervical smear tests. It is a watertight case.

What Goody will not do, he says, is expose her final weeks to public view. "We are very close to the end in terms of what we're going to do media-wise," he says. "She wants to do maybe a one-off with Piers [Morgan] for ITV - she's known Piers for a while and that would be the definitive interview. There might be one or two other things and some charity work ..." But no more: reality TV can only take so much reality.

Clifford was diagnosed with prostate cancer 18 months ago, but the prognosis is good and, at 65, helped by regular tennis - "I have to win; I can't do anything halfway." Despite, or perhaps because of, the succession of camera crews, and calls about wedding cakes and whether Girls Aloud are going to play at the reception, he is remarkably jaunty. "This is not a career," he tells me at one point. "It's really a way of life." Then he turns around and points to a picture that has the status of a religious icon - of him with George Martin and The Beatles in 1962, taken just after Clifford, 19, had started working in the EMI press office.

"That's the first publicity photos they ever did," he says. "I'd literally that day just come from a meeting with the marketing director of EMI, and he said: 'Don't waste too much time on this lot, son, they've got no chance.'"

Almost 50 years on, Clifford is still operating much as he did then: everything kept in his head rather than on computer; handshakes rather than contracts; constantly on the phone, available to everyone (he makes a point of giving me his mobile number); conducting as much business as he can personally. "I could never manage a football team - I'd have to play, even at 65, because I couldn't just stand there and watch it all go on." But what happens to Max Clifford Associates in 10 years, when even the irrepressible one may be slowing down? "We'll worry about that in 10 years. My daughter's out there [in the office]; who knows?" Retirement, however, is ruled-out. "I'll go on for as long as I can. I love it."

And that, whatever lies Clifford might tell on behalf of his clients, is true. From the early Beatles to the tragic late pairing of Goody and Alfie, Clifford has had an extraordinary career - or non-career as he would prefer. His ego is clearly massive, his will to win not is just confined to the tennis court, and his belief that he can manipulate we unswerving servants of the truth is disturbing. But, damn it, you can't help liking him. "He'll be writing 2,000 words of slanderous nonsense about me," he tells his daughter Louise as I'm leaving. As if I would. (Now Max, about that job ...)


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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