Richard Desmond: the former porn baron caught in a Tory scandal

Plans to redevelop printworks in London’s Docklands have put Desmond back in spotlight

The last time Richard Desmond was in the news for his ownership of Westferry printworks in London’s Docklands, he had just finished goose-stepping around a boardroom while shouting Nazi-themed abuse at a group of visiting executives.

The incident, in which Desmond also ordered staff at his Daily Express newspaper to sing “Deutschland uber Alles” at rivals from the Daily Telegraph during a dispute over their joint control of the site, confirmed everything that older media figures felt about Desmond.

He was a pornographer and a pugilistic wheeler-dealer with a fondness for cursing. In short, the fact that the self-made owner of Asian Babes, Big and Black and the Fantasy Channel had ended up as the owner of two national newspapers was a bit embarrassing.

But while the Telegraph is struggling to find a buyer, Desmond realised that nowadays there is a lot more profit in owning a defunct newspaper printing press site with planning permission for hundreds of homes than there is in owning a newspaper.

The problem has been the 68-year-old’s desire to maximise the enormous profit he stands to make from putting hundreds of apartments in 40-storey towers on the site, which has been empty for several years. A lengthy planning process appeared to have concluded in January with an intervention from central government that enabled him to avoid paying tens of millions of pounds in tax to the local council.

What wasn’t known at the time was the extent of Desmond’s lobbying for the deal. As he put it in a text message to the Tory cabinet minister Robert Jenrick, he wanted to push through a profit-maximising deal rather than pay tax to Labour politicians because we “don’t want to give Marxists doe [sic]”.

Desmond has cheerfully cultivated his image as a man who is always on the make. His 2015 autobiography, The Real Deal: the Autobiography of Britain’s Most Controversial Media Mogul, detailed his rise from selling classified adverts as a teenager to running music magazines in his 20s. His publishing interests later took him into the world of pornography, which allegedly resulted in an inadvertent brush with New York mafia during the 1990s during a dispute over premium-rate phone sex lines.

It was his purchase of the Express – then a New Labour-supporting mid-market newspaper – and its stablemate the Daily Star in 2000 that turned him into a national figure with access to the then prime minister, Tony Blair. It was also the first time his approach to political donations came under scrutiny, as within days of the takeover deal being approved Desmond quietly donated £100,000 to Labour party funds.

Former staff have a legion of stories from his era owning the Express, where staff wages were kept low and profits high while Desmond was waited on by a butler and kept a Rolls-Royce on standby. One journalist used his final column to spell out a hidden message saying “FUCK YOU DESMOND”. Another executive claimed at an employment tribunal that he had been punched by Desmond during an editorial dispute.

Under Desmond’s ownership, the Express moved to the right, adopting a strident anti-immigrant, pro-Diana, Princess of Wales stance, which has since been abandoned by the new owners. He was also proud of his OK! magazine, which specialised in buying up the rights to celebrity weddings and then choosing other celebrities as the bridesmaids to increase sales – while also allowing Desmond to mingle with the rich and famous. He still had an eye for a deal, making hundreds of millions from his brief ownership of Channel 5, turning a loss-making public broadcaster into a financial success by cutting costs.

Desmond’s political interests largely followed who was in power, switching support to the Conservatives under David Cameron. However, amid rumours he had been overlooked for an honour, he U-turned in 2014 and ended up giving £1.3m to Nigel Farage’s Ukip.

Although Desmond’s main interests are now in property development – and the young children he has with second wife, Joy – the cultural memory of his newspaper-owning days continues to give him a hold on public life that is not easily shaken.

According to emails released by Jenrick on Wednesday night, during the 2019 general election the minister emailed a colleague asking to set up a meeting with “Richard Desmond, owner of the Express newspaper”. In reality, Desmond had offloaded the Express and the Star to Reach 18 months earlier, one of several details Jenrick may now regret overlooking.

Contributor

Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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