Richard Desmond’s libel case looks pretty baffling. There’s no perplexity over him losing – the passage of Tom Bower’s book over which Desmond sued is brief, factual, and (as Private Eye points out) showed that Desmond’s Express was correct in its reporting of Condrad Black’s precarious finances. What’s confusing is that he brought it at all.
Part of the motivation, according to Bower’s defence, is pride: “Mr Desmond is here because he wants to tell the world that he’s not a wimp.” (All quotes from the trial are taken from Private Eye’s brilliant report, no. 2141, p. 9.) But another motivation would be to suppress the (tacit, and you might think obviously true) assertion in the Bower book that proprietors influence content or use their papers to attack opponents.
“It’s difficult to think of a more defamatory allegation to make against the proprietor a newspaper”, said Desmond’s QC – although the evidence went on to demonstrate that both the Telegraph and the Express were heavily influenced in their editorial by their respective proprietors’ issues with each other.
Testimony from Express media columnist Anil Bhoyrul made it clear that Desmond’s likes and dislikes were imposed more-or-less directly on the newsroom. “Every Sunday the column would come out and I would speak to Martin [Townsend, Sunday Express editor] usually on a Tuesday, and he would tell me ‘Richard liked the column this week’ or didn’t like it. […] I got a pretty good feel for who, you know, to be positive about and who to be negative about.”
The business of the newspaper business is (mostly) newspapers – so it seems intuitive that proprietors and managers would be at least passingly concerned with what they’re printing. Why, then, is it so easy for an organisation like News International to shrug off the phone hacking issue as a low-level newsroom hiccup? Or, more pertinently for Desmond, for the PCC to convict the Scottish Express of a breach “so serious that no apology could remedy it”, and yet for management to be untouched?
It’s axiomatic that Richard Desmond is a “rogue propietor” and a disgrace to Fleet Street. But in using his newspapers to further his own personal and business interests, he’s doing nothing that’s out of step with his peers. It’s obvious from the libel case that Conrad Black was doing the same; the Murdoch papers’ willingness to hound the Beeb and pimp out Sky is another, less cackhandedly executed, example of people acting in their own best interests (or of employees acting in their own immediate interests by acting according to their employer’s preferences).
Desmond is unpopular. He doesn’t hide his unpleasantness, and he’s made a lot of money out of ladyflesh. But it’s a self-serving fiction for other papers to pretend that he’s worse in kind rather than degree.