2 May 2014

How Clifford wilted under the spotlight of his own publicity

Max Clifford was the go-to publicist for some of the world’s most famous celebrities. But he lost control when he became the centre of the story, writes Kunal Dutta.

Max Clifford could always be reached by phone. Always.

In 2011, when I worked at a Sunday newspaper, getting hold of celebrities over the weekend could sometimes prove tricky. Few would return calls or want to be disturbed. But Clifford was different. You knew he’d be available. If he didn’t have time, you knew he’d make some. And on the off-chance he didn’t pick up the phone instantly, you knew he would call back. He always did.

Clifford understood the pressure journalists were under. He was the consummate media manipulator. His calls were almost always on the record and he was never short of anecdotes. This, after all, was once the keeper of secrets to some of the world’s biggest stars from Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra to later Mohamed al-Fayed and Simon Cowell.

Clifford was the consummate media manipulator. His calls were almost always on the record and he was never short of anecdotes.

He had engineered some of the biggest tabloid scoops in history from Freddie Starr ate my hamster (Freddie never did) to Lord Archer’s perjury and Cherie Blair’s pregnancy, building friends and enemies in equal measure.

Working on a broadsheet, our conversations were comparatively dull. I once interrupted his holiday in Spain to ask his views on Britain’s middle class (“Class is now determined by lifestyle, and there are people who moved upwards through their skills and talent,” he proclaimed, using himself as an example). He would talk at length about how his job was less about PR and more about protection.

Our last conversation was in February 2012, where I asked him about his first love for a feature ahead of Valentine’s day. His contribution was never used and eight months later he was arrested as part of Operation Yewtree.

Becoming the story

By April 2013 Clifford became the story. Charged with a string of sexual offences, the irony was staggering. Clifford had spent months telling the media how the Savile scandal had left celebrities fearful that past transgressions would return to haunt them. He had been inundated with calls for help from others, and now found his own reputation under threat.

The battle was on. At first he came out fighting, with a confident – even plausible – rejection of the allegations made against him. At every opportunity he stopped for the cameras and made his case known.

“A black cloud has been placed over me, obliterating the bright blue skies that I have been fortunate to live my life under for the vast majority of the past 70 years,” he told reporters on a fading April evening last year.

A black cloud has been placed over me, obliterating the bright blue skies that I have been fortunate to live my life under. Max Clifford, speaking in 2013

“This is something I’ve got to face up with and I’ve got to deal with. If nothing but the truth comes out, I’m going to be absolutely fine.”

And so the trial began. Day after day as he entered and exited Southwark crown court, Clifford would parade in front of the cameras – sometimes for what seemed like an eternity. It was to the delight of newspaper picture editors – and possibly even his own statement of intent.

But as the trial progressed, and the evidence against him mounted, his confidence ebbed; and the performances outside court looked increasingly out of context, sometimes even just bizarre.

No greater example was the extraordinary footage that saw Clifford walk out of court and behind Sky News reporter Tom Parmenter, mimicking his gestures in what he thought was a live camera report, before walking off. The footage, released by Sky after his conviction, only served to reiterate the image of a man so desperate to retain control of the media that he would even step directly into camera in an attempt to orchestrate it. The judge later cited this as an example that he showed “no remorse” for his victims.

‘Saying nothing’

When convicted on eight counts, Clifford had been advised to say nothing. Facing the prospect of prison, most would have opted for a speedy departure and some life reflection. But Clifford needed the last word. “I’ve been advised by my lawyers to say nothing,” he said, thus doing precisely the opposite, before again posing with his daughter.

Time and again it was as if Clifford needed the media to reaffirm his identity. And each time it seemed that might be cut off, he would actively seek it out. This reached its pinnacle last Monday, as my colleague Kamali Melbourne reported. After hearing his conviction of eight charges of sexual offences, Clifford returned to his home, only to pause and then return to the gates of his Surrey home to speak to Channel 4 News.

When he did – it wasn’t to apologise nor to express remorse. Instead he spoke of his “incredible disappointment” at the conviction. Ironically, as he gave his interview, Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me appeared to play from his car stereo. It was as if the man who spent decades in the sunlight as the king of tabloid PR had one more message to deliver.

But today those narratives, just like his career, are over. Now, as he starts his new life inside a prison cell, some dignified silence is the least his victims deserve.