I knew Max Clifford – and his attitude to women isn't confined to world of showbiz
Published 01/05/2014 | 02:30
Secrets and lies were his stock in trade. The secrets were dirty and the lies could be blatant. But scandal's ringmaster Max Clifford managed to juggle both for decades.
He ran his reputation-control services from an office in London's West End, described in court as a "sexual fiefdom" – a place where he admitted having sex with girls. Consensual sex was his take on it, but not the court's.
It's an office I visited on a number of occasions in the 1990s as a journalist, and a less seductive setting for iniquity you could scarcely imagine. It was a functional space, in no way ostentatious. During Clifford's trial, which led to eight convictions of indecent assault, evidence was heard about the publicist exposing himself there, and asking girls for sexual favours. He was found guilty of abuse over a 20-year period with girls as young as 15.
Arriving at Clifford's office for the first time, I remember being surprised by its nondescript nature. I had an appointment at 109 New Bond Street to write a piece on one of his clients, and was met by Clifford who was courteous, professional and dapper – always in a suit.
The meeting was with an 'EastEnders' actor who had quit the BBC series because he felt it typecast him. Clifford sat in with us for a few minutes before excusing himself to make some calls.
The actor took himself seriously, and the interview was heavy going. The sound of London street traffic could be heard outside, and a female assistant made tea. It was unremarkable.
While Clifford's clients tended to do interviews in hotel suites, the flashier the better, it sometimes suited them to have a chat under the radar in his office.
I was never offered so much as a drink there, let alone a proposition. Places where abuse happens can be so banal and ordinary that we don't realise what's going on.
I remember being more curious about Clifford than the soap star, who wanted me to understand he had an important talent, which the public needed to learn to appreciate. Clifford was legendary for placing the 'Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster' story with the 'Sun' newspaper to drum up publicity for a tour. He also had a name as the go-to man for covering up sexual indiscretions, or selling kiss-and-tells.
On another occasion, I interviewed Status Quo in his office – a band member had some regrets to share – and there were several meetings with Gary Glitter. Rumours about his proclivities were beginning to surface but without proof. Every so often, Glitter offered to show me his trademark glassy stare.
Clifford always remained in the room with him – in case Glitter said something inappropriate, I imagine. He never did. He giggled a lot, though. I had my suspicions about that.
The interviewees Clifford offered me weren't his top stable acts. Either they were trying to make a comeback, or looking for a change in direction. I always understood he was never going to give me much of a story – I worked for the Press Association, which didn't buy material – whereas his scoops and publicity stunts were sold to the tabloids. Mostly, that's where he interfaced, in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
His clients seemed to be heavily reliant on him. After all, he could make people famous. And he could make muck disappear. Certainly, he was the emperor of spin. Overall, he came across as an unflappable person, and uber-smooth. I suppose there was something of the night about him but that wasn't uncommon in his line of work.
When we did business together, I tended to feel somewhat manipulated. Column inches were his holy grail, but some of the acts he promoted weren't worth media attention. Even in the 'famous for 15 minutes' context.
I never caught him in a lie; in fact, he could be disarmingly honest now and again. It was a case of exaggerations, or relevant information left unsaid.
However, from remarks he made around the time his autobiography was published in 2005, it's clear he views the truth as open to revision – either to promote or protect clients. Lies were sometimes necessary to save them from the consequences of their actions.
I always thought he had a moral code, of sorts, and operated to it, but his ambivalence about where truth ends and deception begins may be the key to Clifford's character.
When you lie to yourself, lying to others is easy.
The women he preyed on described being haunted by shame, during their testimony at London's Southwark Crown Court.
"We had no platform to tell of the fear we experienced," said one afterwards.
The showbusiness industry was – and is – fertile hunting ground. Many girls – some more naïve than others – batted themselves against its windows, desperate for success and correspondingly vulnerable.
Operation Yewtree, a historic sex abuses investigation arising from allegations against Jimmy Savile, shines a light on a sleazy slice of life.
But it can surprise no one. Trying it on with young women has long been accepted behaviour in various industries. The media included. When I started out in the newspaper business, it was not uncommon for senior staff members to seek to take advantage of young, female reporters. The suggestion always was that it would help their careers.
Girls learned to watch out for one another, and to ensure we weren't caught in pubs or taxis with such men. At university, I witnessed similar behaviour from people in authority.
So let's not fool ourselves that Max Clifford's brand of seediness – the myth that we're all consenting adults here – is found only in the entertainment world. That lets too many off the hook.