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.