View from the Top: Max Clifford

Max Clifford talks to Mark Johnson about scandals, ethics and bringing down governments

While waiting in the small reception of Max Clifford Associates, just 15 minutes before the man himself is due to meet for this interview, he appears on the TV set there, commenting live on the Burrell affair.

The soundbites roll.

Clifford is everywhere in his New Bond Street office, even while he's not physically present. The mosaic of tabloid front pages on the walls are further evidence of the man.

One of his nine staff, all of whom bar one are female (his daughter also works for him), reviews a VHS tape of another TV interview Clifford appeared in over the weekend. 'Max should be back soon,' she says.

He returns, and after a five-minute photo shoot, waves me into his glass-fronted office at the far end of the room. As he sits at his desk on this Monday afternoon, the phone hardly stops ringing - The Times wants to know what he thinks about healthcare PR, the editor of a national daily calls up for advice on its coverage of the Burrell affair. He sips coffee and doesn't touch his computer. He works mostly on the phone.

This level of media attention has meant the PR industry is represented de facto in the media by his wheeler-dealer publicist reputation, even though he makes no claims to the mantle. 'I don't ever ask to do an interview and I turn down lots of interviews because I just don't have the time or the inclination,' he says.

On the Burrell affair he is scathing about how the Royal Family has handled its PR during the alleged male rape tape scandal that emerged after the collapse of the trial: 'It's not so much the alleged male rape that has caused the damage, it's the way the Royal Family goes about getting its message across. And whatever Sir Michael Peat says, no-one will believe him. It (the internal inquiry into the handling of the rape allegation) is perceived by the public - rightly or wrongly - as a cover-up.'

While he claims to turn down many interviews he has accepted this one with PRWeek. It's a chance to talk to the PR industry with which he has an ambivalent relationship. His take on the industry is seldom short of critical: 'The odd few (PR people) I've come across, I think, have caused more harm than good.'

This attitude, along with his reputation for muckraking, has led many to ask: Is he really doing PR? Undoubtedly, the answer is 'Yes.' He says: 'Public relations is an important part of what I do.' But he does a lot more things than most typical PR operators.

The 'kiss-and-tell' stories, he keenly points out, found him rather than the other way round. It started in 1989 when he sold in a story about Pamella Bordes, a House of Commons researcher who became involved in a sex scandal. 'I broke the story,' says Clifford, to divert attention from a friend. 'But it wasn't a kiss-and-tell. It was damage limitation. I was helping out a good friend of mine, a Madam, who was about to be exposed by The News of the World. Pamella Bordes - who I have never spoken to in my life and was not my client - was my way of stopping her being turned over. And it worked.'

So effective was his strategy that it made kiss-and-tell a significant part of his portfolio. As requests came in from such clients, he developed the fee system that further alienated him from other PR practitioners; he takes a 20 per cent cut of what the newspaper editor is prepared to pay for a scoop. But he is at pains to make clear that while scandals grab attention, they don't constitute the majority of his clients:

'I take retainers of between £10,000 and £20,000 a month from all the clients that we have. I have 12 different clients (Leeds United Football Club, Spearmint Rhino, Hush restaurant and Sands Beach Villas, to name a few) That's year in, year out. It has been for 35 years,' he says with some irritation.

There are a lot of things that people don't know about him, he says.

He works as a journalist: 'I still have my NUJ card, I still write features from time to time - when I get time.' And he has never pitched for business: 'I wouldn't do it.'

He knows few people in the industry, but has some admiration for Alastair Campbell who 'has done a reasonable job', Jackie Cooper, whom he helped start in business,and Mark Bolland for his work with Prince Charles.

We move on to his own public image, which came under the microscope earlier this year when documentary maker Louis Theroux attempted to get under his skin. I ask him how he feels about his portrayal in that programme, and from his reaction, it clearly left him with a bitter after taste.

'It was three-and-a-half months (of filming) because he couldn't get enough to make me look stupid. So he kept filming and filming,' he says, his lip perceptibly curling on a usually unperturbed face. 'I know that I was happier with the end product than he was, even though he edited it - I had nothing to do with what went in.'

Clifford claims he used the whole thing to promote his clients and himself, but that it failed to explore who Max Clifford really is. 'It said nothing about me other than I can play the game. He said: "Oh, Max we're not filming now". "But you are, Louis. The light's on". "Oh, I didn't realise". Once you know and see, then you just play the game.'

In the end it became a game of cat and mouse, says Clifford: 'He asked: "Come on Max, is Simon Cowell gay? Isn't that why he's paying you all this money - to keep it hidden? You can tell me." I said: "Actually Louis, no, he's not. But are you gay? Are you a practising homosexual, Louis?"

'"Cut!" We had three months of that. Greg Dyke found the uncut tape hugely entertaining.'

Clifford turns the conversation back to what the public missed in the film - the bulk of the agency's work - retained clients that don't entail scandals. These, he says, are what make the agency successful, and pay the bills. To illustrate his point, he takes a bank statement from his filing cabinet and shows it to me, explaining that apart from property in the UK and Spain, he doesn't invest his capital, but saves it.

Despite the demonstration, he still counts his involvement in the long spat of scandals that beset John Major's government in the late 1990s as his proudest achievement.

'Knowing I played a part in bringing down a government, knowing I managed to get that word "sleaze" firmly attached to that word "Tory" and that that totally destroyed the Conservative government under John Major. That gave me immense satisfaction,' he says.

And what's more - and something New Labour should bear in mind - he claims he was not politically motivated. 'If this lot become as sleazy as that lot, I'll do my best to show them up as well,' he says.

Clifford has put such sleaze stories to good use over the years. He uses them to help bargain for coverage on behalf of his retainer clients.

'It's a basic form of trading. When I broke the Jeffrey Archer story - which was front page on every national newspaper that particular Sunday - for weeks to come there were features in all of those papers on different clients of mine,' he says. 'The simple analogy is that if you have as much influence on the front pages as we do, you have a good influence on all the other pages, naturally.'

Reconciling the type of work he does - both exposing and hiding scandal - throws his work into the centre of the debate about the role the media plays in intruding into privacy. He also has to live with the knowledge that some of his work destroys lives. Does he ever feel ashamed? There is a long pause.

'When you're working - as I am - at 100 miles an hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and you get involved in the dramas that I get in the middle of most of the time, it's never going to be perfect. That's a fact of life. I know I love what I do. I've made an awful lot of money.'

Exactly. But how does he deal with the ethical dilemmas?

He leaves the office for a moment and returns with a framed letter from Surrey Police dated November 2001, thanking him for assisting in the case that helped to expose former radio DJ Jonathan King as a paedophile and put him in prison for seven years.

'I get letters like this all the time. I don't know how many people in the PR industry have done that, but I'm happy to have done it. Who did I hurt by bringing out Jonathan King?' he asks.

'But more than that there's the every day - the people who phone us because they are being bullied or victimised. They can't get justice whereas we can sort it out just by making a phone call to the chairman of the company and saying: "I just wanted to talk to you about so-and-so. He isn't employing me but I'm representing him and I've heard all the things he's had to say and it's most horrendous, but of course there's always two sides to the story. Before I go to the media, I'd like to hear your side".

'Then you find that this person who is about to be turned out of his or her job because she resisted the chairman's advances - suddenly it's all sorted out and they're not in jeopardy. I do it every day. What have other people in the PR industry done about it? Sweet f**k all.'

With continuous calls from other media, the PRWeek interview takes all afternoon. As I put away my notebook, he gets up from his desk, limping from a tennis knee injury, his favourite sport. He shakes my hand, explaining that all of his business is conducted on a handshake.

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