Privacy Commission Day 4, Witness 3: Max Clifford

The PM Privacy Commission spoke to the PR consultant Max Clifford on Tuesday June 21, 2011. The commissioners are Sir Michael Lyons, Lord Faulks QC and Baroness Liddell.

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NB: This transcript was typed from an audio recording. The views expressed by the witness are their own.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.

ML: Well our next witness is Max Clifford, probably the UK's best known publicist.

MC: I'm actually a P.R.....

ML: Forgive me Max....

MC: No it's simple, a publicist promotes, a P.R. promotes and protects and the biggest part of my business is protection not promotion now and for the last 20 odd years. I started out with the Beatles in '62 it was more about promotion but now its changed a lot.

ML: Let me give you the opporitunity to introduce yourself and to say something about how you've come to be involved in the debate about public privacy versus the rights of the press.

MC: Umm, yeah my name's Max Clifford and I'm a PR consultant and have been for close on 50 years now and initially when I started in the business the most important part of what I did was promotion. Um in the early days in the music business helping to launch the careers of people like the Beatles, and Cliff Richard, an Adam Faith, and all the Tamla Motown acts, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder and people like that. Umm but in the last 20 -25 years, increasingly my business and I do PR for Simon Cowell and Rolls Royce and Mauritius, loads of different accounts, Iceland the supermarket chain, Stacey Solomon etc etc etc, the biggest part is protection. Often from the excesses of the media so my role I suppose has been poacher and game keeper for the last 40 of the last 50 years.

ML: And just, you refer there to the excesses of the press, do you feel that we've, you've got a press that needs greater control or....

MC: Yes, I mean I'm a great believer that the press should have the freedom to be irresponsible because once you contain them the rich and the powerful will have total control as opposed to an awful lot of control. But ehh, for ordinary people, ehh they can be incredibly cruel, and destroy lives with ordinary people having no means of defending themselves. And you know I've been in the middle of these battles for many many years and give you loads of examples. A good example would be Robert Murat. Robert Murat was given aguido status in Portugal a few years ago over the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. The British media, the tabloids particularly absolutely destroyed him. They wrote front page story after front page story accusing him of everything under the sun including that his computer was seized and the police found loads of child pornography. He and his mother and his aunt approached me almost suicidal, can you help us? We've done nothing to deserve this, we haven't had a trial, we've been found guilty by the British media. Press complaints commission don't exist for us, can you help us? And I did, and eventually we finished up with apologies from just about every national newspaper and I think several hundred thousand pounds in terms of compensation. Of course it never should have happened but it's a wonderful example of the very worst excesses of the British media.

ML: And do you have a thought about how you might curb those excesses?
MC: Well you need a real press complaints commission; you need an independent body that is in control not controlled by the press which is what we've got at the moment you know know I've had discussions with various members over the years but to 90% of the public they don't exist, and for an awful lot of people, they're not there, and they certainly not....they're not proactive. What we need is a real press complaints commission, umm independent of the media, controlled by people that care, that aren't frightened, intimidated or in the pocket of media which is what mostly what happens, to stand up for ordinary people so that you know they have a right and they have a means of protecting themselves which they don't have at the moment. That's based on experience rather than theory in words.

EF: Max a lot of your clients are well known, in one field or another but some of them are not well known at all but then they come to you in different circumstances. Can you give us an idea of the circumstances in which you acquire clients of the non-well known sort?

MC: Well often its people like Robert Murat who just come to me and say Max can you help me because no one else will. We don't charge because they don't have any money. But people come to me all the time for protection; you know David Lloyd came to me yesterday the former tennis player because Greg Rusedski is taking out court proceedings against him which are potentially very damaging - Max can you help me? Imogen Thomas came to me a couple of months ago. The Sun are trying to show that I've had an affair with Ryan Giggs. Have you had an affair? Yes I have but I don't want it to come out. Ok, I speak to the editor of the Sun, they haven't got enough evidence to make it work so it wouldn't come out. Don't have to worry about it Imogen, you say nothing, anybody calls you, you put them on to me and tell Ryan Giggs to keep his head down and say nothing and it won't come out. She phoned him and warned him and told him what I told her to say, he then took out a super injunction and I think we all know what happened after that. People come to me every day. There's a family came to me today a terminally ill child and I arranged for her to go to X Factor a couple of years ago and she made a wish list of things that she wanted to do before she died. The local paper covered it, it came out a week or two ago, and she's been inundated by the media. Very poor family from Cumbria, have another child who's very, very ill and suddenly the media knocking her door down, wanting to speak to them upsetting them frightening them so I said well just put them all on to me. That happened yesterday and today, it happens every week.

EF: So people tend to go to you rather than the PCC or to lawyers very often.

MC: Well I mean I don't know who phones the PCC, but you know, these people couldn't afford lawyers.

EF: You use the press as well as it were protecting your clients as you described it.

MC: absolutely right.

EF: When do you think it's legitimate to use the press to promote your clients and then as it were try and stifle them if their protecting them

MC: The two go hand in glove, when I found out the News of the World had been hacking my phone, I challenged them legally. At the same time I was still dealing with the Sun and the Sunday Times and the Times. I'd had a very good relationship with The News of The World for 20 or 30 years. I've made an incredibly good living from the media, with the media for nearly 50 years now. So, it's a 2 way street but that doesn't mean to say that I think they should get away with whatever they want to and I do everything I can to stop them so I have a love/hate relationship with them.

ML: We're concerned about a privacy which of course affects not just people in the public eye all the time because they're politicians or footballers but potentially anybody else.

MC: .....ordinary people have got none.

ML: Yes, so what do you think could be done to improve the protection of ordinary people?

MC: Emm I think it's relatively straight forward. You need a press complaints commission which is 80% more powerful and active than the press complaints commission that we have now so that everybody knows they can go to them and they will help them and take care of them. It means that in my view, any paper that has an exclusive on someone, whether they're rich and famous or totally unknown has to justify their story before it comes out. And they would go before the press complaints commission on the understanding that no other paper could have that exclusive and if they could justify it on the grounds of real public interest not on circulation titillation, which is most of it now, then it would come out you know...I've broken more stories in this country than probably anybody in this last 40 years hundreds of them. And I could say 20% of those could be justified on the grounds of human interest, real human interest as opposed to people are interested in them because the public in this country are obsessed with the private lives of rich and famous and anybody else.

EF: Well that's probably just as well for you sometimes isn't it?

MC: It works, yeah it does, it's worked very well for me sometimes. As I said I've broken more stories probably than anybody else but for every story I've broken there's 6 I've stopped.

EF: Do you think it would help if there was some specific law provided by parliament defining what privacy was or attempting to define what public interest was.

MC: Yes, I suppose if there's a strong guideline, you know I don't have too much faith in the legal profession I think they're more interested in themselves and making as much as they can out of every situation than justice. But that's just based on the 40 years I've been involved with it. But I think the most important thing is that you've got a body that understands the media, that is strong enough to stand up to the media that isn't controlled by the media as the press complaints commission are. So that, you know these people will be you know as to what real public interest so that in other words any story to come out along those lines, the editor of the paper have got to justify to these people and if this body of people you know press complaints commission call them what you want but a real body that has real power and isn't in the pocket of Rupert Murdoch or associated newspapers as they are at the moment then no than....well say no it's not justified. That way I think you'll get a fair....I mean parliamentarians are controlled by media, they won't stand up to Fleet Street the way that judges do, judges don't care.....

ML: I was coming onto that, you say that you don't have a high regard for the legal profession but what about judges? Have you considered the judgements?

MC: No I think the judges....well no way they will stand up to them they are standing up to them. But you know when you get judges saying, who are the Beatles....

EF: That's a bit of an old one...

MC: It is an old one but I can give you a hundred more recent times that's the worrying thing about that. That you know it's a totally different world and they live in that different world and a lot of them haven't got real clue about the real world as in Britain in my view, in my experience.

EF: Have you actually read the judgements in so far as you're allowed to read the judgements in some of these super injunction cases?

MC: No

EF: Well I think perhaps you ought to.

MC: Mmm hmm (positive noise)

EF: Thank you

HL: Max, you began your career in newspapers didn't you? As a youngster before you got into sort of promotion and p.r.

MC: Yes, *muffled* trainee reporter

HL: What I'd like to probe with you is the whole issue of accuracy around stories.....

MC: what's that?

HL: Accuracy the whole issue of accuracy

MC: Accuracy?

HL: .... around stories, you spoke about Robert Murat and the stories that were published about him that had no basis in fact. Why do you think newspapers think they can get away with doing that kind of thing, publishing things that have absolutely no kernel of truth?

MC: Because they can, unless you're powerful, unless you've got money they can! They can write what they want because you can't stand up to them.

HL: Do you think over the years of your involvement in the media industry that issues of accuracy have diminished and issues of ethics have diminished?

MC: Yes

HL: Why do you think that's happened?

MC: Well I think it's happened Because of...thank you....circulation, you know competition, they're all losing circulation, it gets fiercer, there's cut backs, cut backs, cut backs. Sensational stories are the life blood of Fleet Street so they get ever more desperate, I mean look at the phone hacking and all that. You know and the methods that they use but you know I look after an awful lot of rich and famous people. They get a lot of protection, maybe too much protection. From people including myself I've stopped many a story of a major style which is totally true but which would be damaging. But the vast majority of people haven't got any hope at all so you know suddenly they're thrown into know a woman I knew up in Scotland not so very long ago I met on a television show, daughter was killed in a playground accident on those old steel cones, whatever just one of those things and the family were in, you can imagine what they were...the media descended on them and going through their back garden and rubbish bins because no one would talk to them. And they had a young son who wouldn't talk to them, just obviously distraught as you would imagine. Anyway, a story came out quoting him as saying this and that, he never said a word, he committed suicide.

HL: Certainly we've heard some pretty distressing stories about the impact on people's personal life. We've just had a session with Helen Wood who told us in quite graphic terms about what it was like for her family particularly for her father....

MC: This tea is coffee by the way....

HL: Is it, that's tea you have my tea

(Interrupted by tea talk)

HL: Let me go back to the Helen Wood issue.....*interruption*...she spoke about the impact on her family and her friends and the distress that was caused and then she said she wised up to what she should be doing after the second incident the one with the actor that she's not allowed to reveal. At what stage did your company become involved with Helen because one of the issues we've been exploring is the lack of advice that is available to people who are caught in that storm?

MC: I mean I don't know because one of the girls in my office dealt with Helen and we don't ever approach anybody, we've never approached anybody ever whether it was Frank Sinatra or it was Helen Woods they come to us or we don't get involved and often we don't get involved and they do come to us so I'm not sure but it wasn't in the beginning. One story came out, the first story of her and Wayne Rooney and her and her mate and Wayne Rooney we weren't involved. She came to us afterwards I think but again I'd to speak to Denise in my office but the idea being ok they media have used me and now I'm going to use them.

HL: She's very complimentary towards your business and the help she actually received.

MC: Bless her

HL: One of the issues and you've explored the press complaints commission route. How do we get from where we are at the moment with the press complaints commission the self regulatory body with newspaper editors actually sitting on the PCC to the model that you recommend, how do we get from today to tomorrow?

MC: With difficulty because of course the press want to control the press complaints commission and the press are very powerful so you know I think it's something that will be discussed for donkey's years and nothing will happen. But what we need, I suppose the only way is that, that...for David Cameron or whoever is in charge to...this has got to change and this is how it's going to change and it's passed that you know the people looking.... I mean in my view press complaints commission always said they have another body but it's got to be a body which is totally free from any control by Fleet Street or influenced by Fleet Street or bullying by Fleet Street that isn't frightened by them and will you know emm, make their judgements on that basis. How do you get there? You just got to....I suppose identify the right people to do the job and then persuade them to do the job.

HL: Could you ever encourage editors to go along with it because there would have to be quite strong sanctions to make editors tow the line.

MC: Yeah, you know it's difficult but I mean the good thing about is that they understand it, they understand the business but you've got to have someone that is then totally free of Fleet Street and there's no influence from Fleet Street and they're quite happy to stand up to the excesses of things they didn't stand up to when they were editing so you know it's not easy but what we've got at the moment is a shambles.

ML: Max, on one hand I hear you saying that you think that everybody has a right to privacy and that should be better protected. On the other hand, I hear you saying that you've broken more stories than many. Who's fair game?

MC: Very simple, look, you must have a free press in a healthy democracy but people also have the right to privacy so the middle ground I believe is justifying the story. You know if you're going to bring out a story about MPs expenses I personally wouldn't worry too much whether people tap people's phones to get it. If you're going to bring out a story about Prince William's new girlfriend or Prince Williams whatever by phone hacking - totally wrong. Every situation is looked at on its own merits but to me the common sense is you've got to be able to justify that story. It is in the public interest not in the interest of your circulation, titivation and that's all that matters. So, you know right to privacy, freedom of speech, vitally important. You know I don't think the American system is right I think it's too much in terms of freedom of speech where you can say anything you want almost about anybody. But if you take my own experiences as a guideline I would think that probably ¾'s of the stories that come out would have been stopped on the grounds that you know there was no real public interest.

ML: So, help me to draw the line here. Do you think some people give up the right to privacy merely by being celebrities or is it something about the way they behave that is....

MC: Yeah, I think you've got to look at every situation. You know, Jordon doesn't deserve anything like the same protection as Simon Cowell. Now I would say that cause I do PR for Simon Cowell but Simon has always kept his private life totally private, all aspects of his private life have been kept private. Katie Price sells everything and anything about anything and everything she's done. The child, the birth, the fake boobs the this, the that so to me common sense tells me she doesn't deserve the same privacy when it doesn't suit her as someone who has always kept their private life....and I'm not saying if Simon Cowell was a paedophile then of course we should know about it but you see what I'm saying....but if it's just tittle tattle, that's the kind of line as I see it and having been in the middle of it all my life I suppose it's very easy for me to see. And of course it would have to be argued and discussed but that's the point I would make is that a celebrity or a star who has made their whole life public to build...I mean Jade Goody who I looked after in the last year of her life. Jade could never have justified the same kind of protection as many, many other stars that I've looked after because she used the media and you know her whole private life was in public cause that's what she wanted so hopefully that gives you a guide as to how I.....

ML: and you must be inundated with different people looking to you for help

MC: Protection, every day...

ML: How do you choose which ones to help and which ones to....

MC: I suppose it's kind of a time situation. It's how much time you've got. I'm patron of children's hospices, I'm a patron of several children's charities, I'm an ambassador for children in need, people come to you all the time with all kinds do what you can. I mean we take care of this lady today simply by anybody knocks on your Max Clifford and leave us alone and they will. So you can do those kinds of things and you can do them very, very quickly and I'm in a lucky position I can do that. So, you, I mean you do as much as you can. I mean as I say, I'm not holding myself up as some kind of a Christian. I'm made an absolute fortune from the media and loved every minute of it and broken all kinds of stories and this and that whatever, whatever, whatever. The only rule applied is, if David Beckham is playing away and he gets caught up with Rebecca Loos, he's old enough and ugly enough to know the risk he was taking and as they've loved the media spotlight and have made millions and millions and millions I don't feel quite as protective as I would be for someone like Imogen Thomas that in no way wants to go public and in no way wants it to come out. If that makes sense

ML: It does, are there any cases that you've broken that you regret cause of the damage that's been done.

MC: I mean, there's situations, there's people I've been involved with which after a while I've found out you know weren't the people I thought they were. have I made mistakes of course I have...but I often have to work very quickly and I often have to make a judgement very quickly. I don't have time for committee meetings or this is about to happen. Mostly, mostly it's worked out very, very well and I've been very glad that I've done what I've done when I've done it but have I made mistakes of course I have.

EF: Well, we all do you seem to have a particular concern about parliamentarians and people who hold a public office. And regard them as special case perhaps for....

MC: I mean Rupert, I don't know how much of this is going out because I've got to be you know. As far as I'm concerned Rupert Murdoch is in bed with David Cameron, he won in the election, they did a deal, Andy just beggars belief. no way is David Cameron in my view going to stand up to Rupert Murdoch's newspapers because he's in bed with them they won in the election and Murdoch knows that.

EF: I was actually focusing on a different issue Max if I can take you to it, it's do people who hold public office have different rights in terms of privacy?

MC: I think, I mean look, I exposed David Mellor you know but David Mellor was lecturing us about family values while having an affair. Other politicians I knew were having affairs I just protected because they weren't using the wife, using the family, giving a totally false impression, a false image. They weren't lecturing us about the importance of family values, and back to basics and all that nonsense for their own political gains.

EF: So hypocrisy is the thing...

MC: yeah absolutely - double standards - you look at every situation. And again it's a personal thing, it's my personal view you know but as I'm the one whose doing it it's up to me. So you know I've broken several political stories, John Major and emm what's her name...Edwina Currie and wonderful things like that Which I think you can totally justify.

EF: But I get the impression that you believe that all the stories you've broken by and large would pass the public interest test because

MC: No, no, no, no probably about 25% 20% most of them wouldn't. I mean even Ryan GIggs wouldn't have passed. I mean he brought it upon himself. But no, there's no way you could have justified that on anything other than circulation.

EF: You've had your finger on the pulse of a lot of these stories over the years. DO you think editors are getting it right for example with their obsession with footballers sex lives, do you think the public is really interested in all that.

MC: Oh they're interested, god yeah - circulation proves it. And the kind of money they pay, I mean so.....should we know, do we need to we justify it, in my view, no. But is there an interest, oh yeah, huge interest.

EF: And it still continues does it?

MC: Very much so, football becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. You know which is sad because if only these footballers weren't the people they are most of them they could do so much for kids, because kids are influenced by them. You know if Wayne Rooney wasn't Wayne Rooney but was Rory McIlroy so much good can be achieved. You know I briefly got involved with the England squad and desperately wanted them to do you know a major game beginning of the season for Children in Need. Not interested, not interested....agents, well how much are we? Nothing, it's just for charity. Children's hospices, you know the only way I get stars down there because I stopped them from being exposed, football stars. You will go down there....

EF: You're pulling in a few favours really...

MC: Sorry?

EF: You're pulling in a few favours (muffled)....

MC: Absolutely right, all the time. Yeah, you will go down, and you will see the kids there or else I'm not going to stop that coming out which is going to cost you 20 - 30 million in a divorce or embarrassment or whatever and they go down. Now I'm doing the wrong thing but for the right reasons and for me the pluses outweigh the minuses. So they might be totally selfish and thick and all the rest of it but the kids don't know that and the kids actually think that they care and it matters. So, but you can't just divide the stories in terms of public interest no.

HL: And whenever you go to a newspaper, is it harder nowadays to get money out of them as the world is getting tighter.

MC: Well they don't have the money they did. But what you do is you put 2 of them in bed together so for example, the News of the World are the biggest payers. Fine. But if I hadn't have gone to the News of the World with Natasha I would have gone to the Mail on Sunday, put them in bed with the Sunday Mirror, they come up with the same money. Cause it's a totally different market so if you buy the Mail on Sunday you probably won't buy the Sunday Mirror and vice versa so they've both got an exclusive. So, instead of, for example, you know the Mail on Sunday paying 50,000 and the News of the World sorry the Sunday Mirror paying 50,000 you know they pay you know half, half each. Rather, instead of them paying a 100,000 two of them will pay 50,000.

HL: I now realise how naïve I am, thank you.

ML: Max, as I've listened to your evidence, I'm sort of clear that you are trading on both sides as you said yourself.

MC: Poacher and gamekeeper absolutely right

ML: and that's pretty murky territory really. Do you have a moral compass for yourself.

MC: I'm not at all murky, I'm a lovely person actually.

ML: We can see that.

MC: And I understand that, but if you knew...then I don't think you'd...I mean I do sleep very well at night. Because I know what I actually do and what I stop and who I help so but yes, you know have I broken lots of stories which have got no public interest, justifiable public... .absolutely right. And I wouldn't do that, if I knew the person and I knew it was going to have, I wouldn't do it.

ML: Well you never know....well you don't know....

MC: No, you make a calculated guest based on what you know and who you know.

ML: Well, thank you for being so frank with us. Can I give you the opportunity before we close this session, if there's anything you would like to say, direct to the listeners of the PM programme about the issue of public right to privacy?

MC: No, I mean I think my feelings are very straight forward really. That you know, everyone's right to privacy, everyone - not just the rich and famous is just as important as freedom of speech in a healthy happy democracy. Emm, what we've got now is all the protection for the rich and famous, lawyers, expensive pr's like myself that they can afford. The vast majority of people have got no protection at all. What I hope, I don't believe it will happen, but what I hope is that we will get a strong body that can find that middle ground. A strong body that ordinary people can go to that will take care of them and be fair by them and stand up to the media. You know, I suppose, in my mind it's kind of the press complaints commission - 80% more than what we've got right now which is lip service and you know controlled and totally in the interest of the newspapers.

ML: Thank you very much.

MC: Thank you.

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