The Beatles – arguably the most successful band in the history of popular music. Simon Cowell – a music producer with an estimated net worth of £200 million. Jade Goody – a media personality who was ranked on Channel 4’s 100 Worst Britains, yet also the most mourned individual of 2009. Other than fame, only one thing ties these three together. It may be going a bit far to call this thing an institution, but there is no question about the fact that Max Clifford is a big deal. Clifford left school with no qualifications and was given a leg up by his brother into a job which would train him as a journalist. However, after taking redundancy, he made a move across enemy lines to become a publicist for EMI records. It was here he began to build up what can only be described as an unparalleled CV. With clients ranging from Frank Sinatra to David Beckham, Clifford must be very good at what he does.
Before I met Clifford, he had just spoken at the Union. After an emotive and compelling speech in proposition from Professor Jean Seaton and a very “British” rebuttal from Bob Marshall-Andrews QC, Clifford was going to have to do a very good job arguing in favour of the motion “This house fears the Rise of Media Monopolies”. And I’ll be honest, he wasn’t at all how I’d expected. Softly spoken, humble, it wasn’t what you’d imagine from the UK’s greatest PR mogul. However, what he perhaps lacked in presentation, he made up for in conviction and content. His warning of the power of Rupert Murdoch and the influence this man had over David Cameron was delivered in an eerily serious tone, to which even the charismatic and apparently fearless Marshall-Andrews had no response. “When I found out my phone was hacked, I took on News International. None of the other people named would, including cabinet ministers and very powerful people, because they were scared and frightened of News International’s power.” So does Clifford believe that publicists have too much power? “No… I think because of the media generally speaking no. Publicists seek to have too much power, so do journalists. Journalists resent publicists or PRs because they want to have total control themselves. But the journalists, and largely speaking the media, still have the upper hand, although I would like to change that as much as I possibly can, and I do”.
Having the job of interviewing a PR powerhouse who has just shaken one of the most influential debating chambers in the world can only be described as a bittersweet experience. On the one hand you have a chance to grill this individual on any topic you desire, on the other you’re so nervous that just holding onto the dictaphone is difficult, let alone working out how to use it. After convincing myself that it was unlikely that his tirade against the media held Cherwell specifically in mind (although you never know) we turned towards the topic of super-injunctions. Clifford has been responsible for the majority of kiss-and-tell stories that have splashed the front pages of tabloids, and is currently representing Imogen Thomas, the Big Brother star caught in the centre of the super-injunctions scandal after an alleged affair with a premiership footballer. “Yes, I’ve taken out super injunctions; I’ve got lawyers to take them out on behalf of clients, but they’re wrong because it’s a law for the rich. Ordinary people can’t afford super-injunctions which cost fifty, sixty, seventy thousand pounds from the lawyer, the QCs, the whole process. That alone makes it wrong. Also its been introduced by judges, not by parliament. In a democracy that means it’s wrong.” For a resource which would make any publicist’s job easier, Clifford’s outspoken disdain of super-injunctions is clearly a very powerful message.
Clifford has acknowledged the shrewd and calculating nature of the PR industry. In the past, he has used contacts in high-end brothels to detract attention from his own clients, and he was responsible for one of the most famous, and entirely fictional, tabloid headlines of all time, ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’, to garner interest for Starr’s up-coming tour. In 2009, he admitted advising two high-profile gay footballers to stay in the closet to save their careers. When I asked if Clifford thought there had been any progress made in the standing of gay footballers in recent years he responded, “Sadly, no… I said 10 years ago that hopefully it would change, but in my mind it hasn’t. Hopefully the FA will one day start to do something about it as they promised they would a year or two ago.”
Clifford is now 68, and despite over 40 years in the industry, he shows no sign of retiring. While it would appear that the name of the game has not changed much over the course of his career, the internet has changed almost every aspect of public life: “There is so much out there which is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, the super-injuctions: in the last week or so there have been two or three people named as having taken out super-injuctions who haven’t. But actually the newspapers, magazines, television have far greater impact and influence in my opinion. I’ve had seven people coming out on Facebook pretending they’re Max Clifford who have nothing to do with me at all, but that couldn’t happen in a national newspaper.”
And yet despite this marathon of a career, it seems that Clifford has few regrets. “Have I made mistakes? Of course. I’ve had things I’ve been involved in and thought, ‘I would have done that differently’. Of course. But I love what I do and I’ve done it my own way. I’ve had far greater freedom than any journalist… by and large I’m happy with the years gone by.”