The Day I Met Max Clifford…

The news that Max Clifford was sentenced today for eight years after being found guilty this week of eight indecent assault offences against young women aged 15-18 during the 1970s and 1980s made me pause for a few minutes to reflect on my meeting with him for an article some years back. It also made me ponder the reality behind researching and writing these articles and the Faustian deal that’s sometimes made to make access possible to the likes of Clifford.

I was asked by an editor I admired enormously to consider meeting Clifford for an in-depth feature profile of him. I accepted because I found his existence at the nexus between news and Celeb culture fascinating. I also wanted to meet him and size him up – since experience taught me the person behind the public mask can be very different. I detested his ‘image’ but I wasn’t sure how I’d react to the human being.

The access to him came at an unspoken price: He was flogging a book. I knew the deal and how it worked. We mention the book; touch on its contents and/or revelations and maybe even give a plug at the end with price and publisher details. Fine. The pay-off was meeting him, describing his work and world and maybe lobbing some tough questions. It was a fairly easy option on the back of harder investigations I was working on. Max would be fun, I thought.

Arrangements were made. I flew down to London and took a cab to his dreary Bond Street HQ. I describe it in the article as being charmless. That’s how I still remember it today. The rest of the encounter is described in detail in the article. I structured it as I often do, by telling the story of the meeting. I try and act as a fly on the wall and interrogator at times.

My initial impression – and it’s stayed with me – was of a grim, rather grey world, as far removed from the smiling Max Clifford on the arm of celebrities and at the centre of the media storm as you could possibly imagine. Two or three key points stayed with me on the journey home, little ‘events’ that happened during the interview process that I jotted down and which, in my mind, helped me to start to craft a portrait of him. These, to me, were crucial for the finished piece.

I got home. Transcribed the tape recording. Did more research. Called a few people. And then I wrote up the piece. Normally, the give-take with the editor was minimal. In this case it wasn’t. I was asked to cut this and that, and reshape this area and drop the other. Oddly – and for the first time – those crucial initial ‘events’ were the very parts I was being asked to drop. When I asked why I was told, pretty much, that it didn’t fit with the more gentle fatherly image the magazine was hoping for and that, well, he might get angry with me/us/magazine and writs could fly.

I gritted my teeth and wrote something which was, to my mind, just this side of the line I wasn’t prepared to cross. I thought the final published version of the Max Clifford article was ‘okay’ but not great. I haven’t read it since the day it was published. But now after looking at it again I am intrigued by the title of it – which perhaps hints at much that we now know about Clifford as a man. And, of course, there’s even a Jimmy Saville comparison towards the end. I had forgotten about that.

But, given this week’s events, I will now list the handful of little issues that were ditched as we edited. I hasten to add it wasn’t the editor’s fault – I am a big boy – but I always feel saddened and angry with myself for not standing my ground a bit more. Maybe, as I said, I regarded Max as fun, when in fact, I also suspected he was anything but.

So here’s what hit the cutting room floor:

1. When I first met Clifford he was having a manicure done in front of the all-female office. This was odd. I found it peculiar and uncomfortable to witness. Clifford wasn’t in the least bit bothered. This was downplayed in the final edit in case he took offence.

2. During our meeting I challenged Clifford about whether he ever felt bad about his marketing of people like Kerry Katona (in the headlines at the time) who, I suggested, maybe needed help rather than publicity. Clifford exploded and lectured me on journalism’s realities. He derided my work on miscarriage of justice cases and more or less told me I didn’t know how the business or real world worked. He’d obviously done his homework on me and I saw an aggressive and street-fighter tough side to him that he’d concealed previously and afterwards. This was never mentioned in the final edit. Instead I was encouraged to play up his ordinary tastes as far as office decor goes and his ‘everyman’ image. Both of these were true enough but were at odds with his outburst towards me.

3. Towards the end of the meeting he allowed one of his staff to walk in and place a large pile of A4 brown envelopes on the table in front of him and me. They were placed at an angle that allowed me a clear view of their contents: rolls and rolls of £20 notes were inside each one. He took delivery of a list and signed authorization for each envelope. I doubted they were going to pay parking tickets. I got the impression he was keen for me to see this for some weird reason. I wanted this scene to stay in the article but it got ditched in case he sued us for implying… something. God Knows what.

4. Throughout the interview he kept nodding at photos of the Beatles and other famous faces on the walls. Some of these looked faked. His ridiculous, non-stop nodding towards them made me struggle to keep a straight face. I used this as a punch line throughout the initial drafts of the article but they were cut afterwards because it made him look stupid. I wanted to leave them in because that’s what happened and I didn’t make him look stupid… he made himself look stupid.

None of these are particularly earth-shattering. I understood the responsibilities my editor (who I still admire) had too. Over two decades in the business I had hardly ever been around celebrity culture and book extracts etc, so although I knew how it ‘worked’ (see above) I had never actually participated in it. I did the Clifford piece in-between other far more important and difficult investigative projects and felt like a fish out of water covering him. But, for the reasons already mentioned, I still undertook the assignment. I have no regrets I did. I wish it were sharper and more complex and nuanced than it is here… but that’s life. This posting is to show how no one is perfect and sometimes the outcome doesn’t really deliver what you’d hoped.

For what it’s worth, I never got the impression Clifford was sleazy – only the public manicure hinted at something odd but not really anything particularly sinister. Instead I got the impression he had no respect whatsoever for journalists. Me included. We were only pawns in his world and he was a King.

A week or two after I met him, a friend of someone in my family was in Clifford’s company and mentioned my name. They told Clifford I’d interviewed him in person just a week or so before.

Clifford looked them straight in the eye and said he’d no recollection of ever having met me.

I was not in the least bit surprised.

BBC Radio Scotland Profile of Eamonn on ‘Covering Crime’

BBC Radio Scotland

I was invited to be the subject of a programme by Neil McKay, host of BBC Scotland’s ‘Covering Crime’ series about 9 months or so ago.

Over two hours of recording took place one morning and my comments and Neil’s questions were shaped into a programme that runs for 30 mins. Neil managed to unpick a fair bit about my work on the Robert Brown case (which stands as one of the longest investigations of its type on record apparently); my own personal background (which I wasn’t too comfortable with – as you can tell here); and also my views on investigative journalism in general (more than happy to share those!) I got some lovely feedback from listeners afterwards which – unusually – literally made me blush. I enjoyed the experience enormously and much credit goes to Neil and the team for pinning me down with good questions following solid research on their behalf into my work. I have uploaded a copy of the programme here - hope you enjoy it!

The Vatican Bank, the ‘500 Euro’ Monsignor and the Man Hung Under Blackfriar’s Bridge.

I first investigated the strange death of God’s Banker, aka Roberto Calvi, the financier with links to the Vatican and Mafia, a decade ago. I am now working on the same subject as part of a new investigation and will be placing links to my findings on this Blog in due course.

Meantime, developments in the Vatican City today have spurred on those of us with a special interest in examining the details of the structure and business of the Roman Catholic’s church’s finances.

It was expected that the new Pontiff would change the whole ball game.

And yet today it came to pass that the new Pope Francis, greeted recently as a breath of fresh air and supposed cause of rising mass attendances etc, has decided to… change nothing.

Indeed the Vatican’s Bank, or to give it its Sunday name The Institute for the Works of Religion (in Italian: Istituto per le Opere di Religione – IOR) has been given the kiss of life by the Pontiff following reports that he was considering closing it down permanently.

This was despite one of his major headaches since taking possession of the Ring of Fisherman has been the fate of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a prelate currently sitting in jail on charges of money laundering £17m from Switzerland into Italy for nefarious purposes. Known as ‘Monsignor 500′ because he liked to travel light and carry only 500 Euro notes (you couldn’t make this stuff up, honestly) the holy man now resident in the Queen of Heaven jail in Rome, held a senior position in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, another office with a holy name and a corrupt reputation. (It also holds international property assets and investments alone – including some in the UK – in excess of £570m). Scarano has been accused of everything from money laundering to blackmail and has had extensive dealings with the Vatican Bank in the past, an outfit with a long, nasty history. The APSA itself was set up with millions handed over by Mussolini in 1929 in payment for recognition of his fascist regime by the Vatican and investigations revealed its offshore and commercial holdings internationally are simply staggering in scale and complexity.

Of course, none of this is new.

The IOR was the Mafia’s bank of choice back in its heyday of the 1980s when Pope John Paul II was too busy trying to topple Communism to be concerned with its running and management. Instead his right hand man the US cleric Archbishop Paul Marcinkus who assumed the role of the bank’s president until c.1990. Travelling on a Vatican Diplomatic passport he was a virtual untouchable for criminal justice officers from any number of international jurisdictions.

I wrote this article in the Spring of 2004 and it caused something of a stir. I received emails, texts and calls from the most surprising and at times shady quarters imaginable. Individuals who I had dealt with and who I previously thought of as being fearless told me to ‘watch my back’. One had pretty much gone into hiding himself and he urged me to do likewise. This was no joke, movie script or fictional book plot he said, so take steps to look out for your security he urged. My links with Carlo Calvi seemed to attract more interest than I ever anticipated and I was genuinely taken aback by the scale and focus of it. In time it fizzled out but it’s a period of my career I have never forgotten. Enough time has now passed and enough new material has come to my attention due to the insight of others that I now feel confident safely revisiting it.

There was one more Post Script however.

After this article was published I once more tracked down Marcinkus to his bolt-hole in Sun City, Arizona. His housekeeper said she didn’t know him when I first called – her standard reply. I tried again and finally managed to get through to Marcinkus, he breathed heavily down the line as I introduced myself and asked him how he felt being a wanted man in Europe and also about his response over allegations connecting him to the murder of Roberto Calvi, the so-called God’s Banker found hung under London’s Blackfriar’s Bridge at 7.30 am on Friday June 18th 1982 and featured as a fictional character in The Godfather: Part Three. I even offered to send him a copy of this article as a reference.

‘I’ve nothing to say’… commented the former aide to Pope John Paul II and so-called Chicago tough-guy before the line went dead.

He died 18 months later.


Gov. Chris Christie Scandal: New World, Old Journalism…

Bridgegate… you couldn’t make it up. A story that has a premise so daft it sounds like a bad conspiracy theory: A local politician fails to support a powerful governor and so, the latter’s staff closes down a busy bridge to extract political retribution. Too far-fetched, eh?

Apparently not.

Just as I returned from a freezing trip to the NE USA and finished reading the masterful ‘Double Down: Game Change 2012′ book by Mark Halperin and John Heileman about the 2012 Presidential Race the scandal involving NJ Governor Chris ‘Big Boy’ Christie breaks. The book itself is simply brilliant and a worthy follow-up to their superb ‘Game Change’ tome on the 2008 election that also became an HBO movie. Lots of the material deals with Christie’s ‘in/out/shake-it-all-about’ shenanigans as he tried to make his mind up about running for the Oval Office – one minute a larger-than-life GOP poster boy and the next lavishing praise on President Obama so effusive it almost gave Romney a heart-attack. He comes across as a calculating and bull-headed New Jersey ‘player’ fully aware of his status and impact whilst presenting himself as an ordinary man in the street.

The blow-up of the Birdgegate scandal and its fall-out in the past few days is fascinating, especially set against the character portrait the authors reveal in ‘Double Down. I am intrigued because I love covering the non-stop rough-and-tumble spectacle of US politics and I also enjoy the journalism that emerges from it. It’s not always great but it’s always compelling. This is a classic example of both. Anyone in the UK who thinks none of this has anything to do with us should remember that any one of these characters might end up in the White House.

I suspect Christie’s career is damaged badly in the short and medium-term as more federal investigations begin delving into the whole mess and as lawsuits start piling up too. Whether is means he’s fatally wounded for a future Oval Office bid – especially given the US’ political world’s ability to forgive and forget – is anyone’s guess.

Final point on how the story of Bridgegate broke is worth noting: It came the old fashioned way, through whistleblowers and hard-work from print-press journalists locally and nationally. The main publication that did the early heavy-lifting was The Record – based in Bergen New Jersey – who got the story through word of mouth, hard-digging and obtaining records before anyone else. In recent days there’s been a race – well, a scramble really – by the other outlets in the press, broadcast and online – to catch up. Too late. The little guys grabbed the big story first and did it through sheer hard-work and traditional journalism grit.

Lots has been written about the shift in journalism investigations because of technological changes (e.g. Wikileaks; Snowden etc). That’s all well and good. But it’s always nice to see a solid and important story emerge because of classic and tough reporting too. It might be a brave new world, but sometimes the right questions, contacts and a bit of shoe-leather does the trick just as well, if not better, than peering into the screen.

I hope – and predict – The Record’s team will win a Pulitzer this year.


Martha Moxley Murder – Retrial for Michael Skakel

The murder of Martha Moxley in Connecticut, USA on October 30th 1975 was shocking and brutal. The fact a cousin of the Kennedy family – Michael Skakel – was convicted in 2002, only added to the drama.

In 1999, I visited Martha’s mother Dorthy who was then living in New Jersey and interviewed her about the case. She was a dignified and proud woman, someone who gave much of herself during the interview and was an example of love and courage in her slain child’s name. I also spent time in Greenwich, Connecticut, the wealthy community where the crime happened. I spoke to sources and various parties connected to the case. The result was the article I am posting here: Link –  MARTHA MOXLEY MURDER

The reason for me doing this is because it’s been announced this week that convicted murderer Michael Skakel is due a retrial since, essentially, the judge reckons his original defence lawyer didn’t do a good enough job for his client. For his part, the convicted man Michael Skakel has always maintained his innocence.

One of the main advocates for the case against the Skakels was the the author Dominick Dunne. I always found Dunne’s work in Vanity Fair compulsive and very readable. We were in communication in the late 1990s following my coverage of a murder in Ireland of a French socialite for GQ magazine and we met afterwards for a lunch he organised for my wife and I at his home in Hadlyme, Connecticut. I liked him and, like many, found his life and career fascinating. He was generous with his time and advice.

Coincidentally, I also interviewed, in 2006 in Stockholm, his main opponent in the public media battle about the Moxley case and first cousin of the convicted Michael Skakel – Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who I interviewed about a separate subject – and I also found him an interesting and formidable man.

Like other murders I have investigated, the Moxley case had its own peculiarities. The connection to one of the most written-about families in history – the Kennedys through marriage – was bizarre. The fact Dominick Dunne knew the family in his early ‘successful’ phase in Hollywood, was also weird and the coincidence that his own beautiful daughter Dominique Dunne was strangled seven years to the day after Martha Moxley was murdered was inexplicably painful. The fact I knew both sides of the legal debate, only added to the oddness of it for me personally.

However one specific issue that remained unsolved, was the murder weapon. It’s known a golf club was used. But one piece was missing – the handle. That was crucial, since it might have yielded a fingerprint or, in later years/decades, some DNA from the murderer. Speculation ensued about whether it had been stolen by the killer or even ‘disappeared’ by someone to protect the murderer.

Some years after this article was published I found myself talking to an individual at a gathering. He sought me out after learning I had investigated the case and proceeded to tell me in convincing detail, that he knew something about this crime and might even know something about that missing piece of the puzzle – the golf club handle. I smiled, listened and then filed the information away. The significance of the story was a bit lost on me since I had long since allowed the finer details of this story – one of many down the years – to slip off the edge of my mind. Moreover, I was involved in other investigations, academic research work and, most distracting of all, hoping/planning to become a father.

Later, Dominick Dunne passed away and I heard nothing more on this side of the Atlantic at least, about the Skakel case.

Then this week I learned that the case is being reopened. Once again it has already generated much heated debate in the media, including significant comment against the judgement from legal journalists I admire enormously. So I sat down and revisited my article and the original investigation. It’s still a shocking case. I am sure the retrial will be equally controversial.

And I find myself afresh wondering whether that anecdote I was told years ago might, after all, have been of some value. Time will tell.


Irish Media ‘Crisis’

The news in The Irish Times last week that the Irish media sector is facing a looming ‘crisis’ is a shame but not a shock.

Last year I was headhunted to become Managing Editor of Current Affairs at the state broadcaster RTE. After a thorough and enjoyable process stretching across months, including two trips to Ireland and meeting the station’s executive team, the appointment didn’t transpire for reasons I won’t bore you with.

Suffice to say, I enjoyed the process enormously and retain great respect for the executives I met from start to finish. I was left with a compelling feeling of overwhelming potential about where RTE might go if all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. However, research clearly indicated the Irish media as a whole was in trouble. RTE was particularly wounded in its investigations after the Fr Reynolds debacle. I have my fingers crossed it innovates, experiments and re-imagines its way back to its former Gold standard status in this kind of journalism.

A year on, I sense some stagnation across the board in the Irish media, including RTE, which is alarming. It doesn’t take a genius to see audiences are fragmenting at light speed, advertisers are looking elsewhere and journalism delivering ‘as usual’ is actually dying on its feet.

Some bold thinking and fresh ideas might still harness the talent pool that already exists. But the window of opportunity is closing fast.

I hope change is embraced for everyone’s sakes, but especially for the young person wondering whether to go into journalism as a career or not, looking for passion, inspiration and proof that RTE’s investigative journalism can still move, inspire and lead in covering and breaking news that matters.



RIP David Frost… and Thanks.

Like many journalists I was sorry to learn of Sir David Frost’s death. He was a complete one-off and leaves behind an astonishing legacy. His output was colossal. Typically, he went with his boots on, still working whilst on a cruise – odd as that sounds  –  and I suspect he’d have wanted it no other way.

I was fortunate to have had the briefest of personal dealings with him two decades ago. I had just returned from working in the US for Channel 4, when I was dragooned into attending a farewell party in a London TV company’s HQ for – typical TV predicament – someone I didn’t even know. My job was turn up, enjoy the party and make sure everyone knew I was STV’s man. The whole thing was as flat as the lukewarm champagne being served and I was ready to skulk off early when suddenly David Frost materialised in our presence. Things perked up and the atmosphere lifted immediately. I managed to get into his orbit and chat about seeing him on US TV a week earlier interviewing one of my heroes, Ben Bradlee of Washington Post and Watergate fame. I gushed about how good the interview was and asked about seeing it again. He smiled, nodded and told some anecdotes in the way media people do. He asked for my card and contact details, I assumed out of old-fashioned good manners.  A few days later I got a call from his PA at Paradine Productions – his company – saying she’d been instructed to send along a VHS copy of the Bradlee interview to me by her boss. The tapes arrived a few days later with a hand-signed card wishing me all the best and signing off ‘I hope you enjoy them as much the second time around!’

I am not in the least bit surprised most Obituaries are noting that no one had a bad word to say about him.

RIP Sir David Frost.

And Thanks.

Woolwich Terror Attack – The Main Suspect and Me.

I was as shocked and horrified as anyone else this week by the appalling attack by two young men on the soldier in Woolwich, London. The image of the victim lying in the street dying as one of the suspects talked into a lens, with blood on his hands and still holding meat cleavers, was genuinely disturbing at the most primal of levels to anyone watching,

For me however, it’s been particularly unsettling.

Let me explain why.

In the 48hrs since the attacks I have been distracted by the face, voice and build of that man. He seemed familiar and I have spent hours trying to work out why.

I knew he reminded me of someone I once met and have never forgotten, but when I started digging through my notes, I more or less dismissed the imagined link. But I kept searching anyway. New information however, stopped me in my tracks.

The suspect’s name, according to reports, is Michael Adebolajo, a 29 year-old British man of Nigerian origin. Initially that didn’t help me. Moreover, when I discovered he’d changed his name to Mujahid, that confused me even more since I have no recollection or memory reference of having met anyone called that either.

However, the more I looked at the terrible video of him speaking into the camera, waving his blood splattered hands around, the more certain I became I’d met him during one of my investigations in 2004.

After more research, I discovered that this man was a follower of radical cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed. And it was then I realised that my connection might be actually correct.

You see in March 2004, I met the radical cleric – calling himself ‘Sheik’ Omar – in London (in a Burger King rather bizarrely) for an investigation I was doing for Esquire magazine into two UK suicide bombers who’d committed an atrocity in Israel. Some people regarded the radical Sheik who led the extremist group  al-Muhajiroun as a buffoon but I felt different. A source told me the two suicide bombers had been influenced heavily by the cleric, so I wanted to meet him and ask him about his knowledge of them. I came away utterly convinced the cleric knew far more about the suicide bombing operation than he was letting on. He scared me and I tried to convey that in the final paragraph of the article. You can read the investigation here.

Now throughout that memorable meeting Bakri Mohammed was accompanied to the meeting by a very intense, well-built and glowering young black man. Before I’d started taping the encounter, I discovered the pair of them – quite thoughtfully – had already bought me some fast food from the Burger King we were sitting in: I gently declined their kind offer and so the cleric shrugged, then happily tucked into a second Chicken Royale and also helped himself to another large strawberry milkshake. I heard the large young man speak and realised he was a local Londoner and asked him what his name was – he looked at the cleric clearly seeking permission – and then told me in a quiet voice that I could refer to him as ‘Abdul’. He sat silent throughout the entire meeting literally staring at me non-stop, something I found unsettling and a little annoying. I tried to engage him in conversation and he refused to say much. Only after the tape-recorder was switched off did he briefly discuss religion, referring to Jesus using the Hebrew name of Yeshua, and bemoaning the country’s lack of belief in proper religions

That name he referred to himself with – ‘Abdul’ – didn’t help me much as I tried to join the dots.

Until today when I read an article in The Independent newspaper.

It connects the cleric to the Woolwich attacker and there, halfway down, it also states he did indeed have a third name – one he used in between ‘ Michael Adebolajo’ and the more recent ‘Mujahid’. That name – according to Bakri Mohammed himself – was… ‘Abdullah’. The article also lays out his closeness to the cleric, how he became radicalised post-2003 and his movements in that whole timeframe. Everything fits with my recollections.

To triple-check my memory however, I pulled out from my archives this morning the actual 11-page transcript of my interview on March 16th, 2004 with the cleric and this man. As I said, he sat silently throughout the actual recording so I didn’t expect to find much, but after a couple of searches I found, on Page 3 of the 4,409 word transcript, a single reference to me asking the staring black ‘minder’ of the the Sheik a simple question – and I used the name he’d given me when we first met minutes before – ‘Abdul’.

I would therefore state, with perhaps an 85-90% certainty, that the 29year-old man with the meat cleaver and bloodied hands who jointly carried out the Woolwich murder of 25 year-old soldier Lee Rigby, and the 20 year-old minder to the radical preacher I met in North London in March 2004, were the same person.

This photo was taken in London 2007, some three years after I met the man who called himself ‘Abdul’. The same man – as far as I can tell – is circled in this image. He bears a very strong resemblance to the man who accompanied Omar Bakri Mohammed when I interviewed him. The expression in this image was identical to the sullen one he wore throughout our meeting, leading me to strongly believe he was, as I described him in the investigation, the radical cleric’s ‘minder’. He is pictured here with another well-known radical preacher Anjem Choudary.

My final recollection of the encounter – an anecdote I have mentioned frequently in lectures to students because I never forgot it – was when we wrapped up the interview, the pair muttered to each other and then invited me back to a local flat. They said they had some interesting ‘martyr’ videos I might find interesting and could assist me with my investigation.

I politely declined.

Eamonn O’Neill presents new 1hr BBC Radio 4 documentary on Watergate

I am delighted to announce that a new BBC Radio 4 documentary I have been working on recently will air on Saturday May 11th at 8pm,

‘Heroes and Hacks’ examines Watergate on its 40th anniversary and evaluates its legacy for journalism and society. I interviewed all the legendary ‘greats’ – including quite a few of my own heroes – including: Bob Woodward, Len Downie, John Pilger, Heather Brooke and Nick Davies. There’s even a short clip of me interviewing Ben Bradlee over 20 years ago (which indicates how long I have been studying the topic!). I am planning a new academic/trade book and multi-platform digital project on this in the next 12-18 months.

It was great fun to do and the production company who produced it for BBC Radio 4 – Whistledown Productions – were superb. Special thanks to producer Colin McNulty for all his hard work and help.

Giving Evidence to the Scottish Parliament

I was invited recently to give expert evidence in the Scottish Parliament on the future of investigative journalism in Scotland in the wake of press regulation proposals. The Education and Culture Committee were were well-briefed on the thorny topic and its members asked some very engaging questions. I was delighted to follow on from Lord McLuskey who wrote the recent report for the Government and also deliver my evidence alongside Pete Murray from the National Union of Journalist who is not only a widely respected colleague but a great pal.

Of course the most surreal part of all was realising halfway through my evidence that one of the committee members was none other than an old school friend who I hadn’t seen since the Physics class nearly 30 years before. What a way to meet the lovely Clare Adamson MSP again.

The whole morning was filmed and is available here.