Max Clifford at his desk in 2005
Hersham resident Max Clifford has been found guilty of eight indecent assault charges. We spoke to him back in 2005, in an interview that now takes on historic irony.
In a small, unobtrusive office above a music shop on New Bond
Street, the phones are on fire. It’s the day Charles and Camilla
announce their engagement, and top PR fixer, Max Clifford,
has the BBC World Service on one line, a US cable TV
company on the other and a French TV crew in the meeting room.
Everyone wants a soundbite. What does he think of their public
image? How ready are the British public for Queen Camilla?
What does he think about this, that and the other?
Relaxed, tanned and surrounded by framed pictures of sex and
scandal tabloid headlines, he rakishly recounts a frothy story
about Jude Law between ‘royal insights’. His merry team of PR
girls are in and out of the office, roaring over last night’s antics
at the Brits, while his daughter is in the next room signing up a
lucrative new client. Business is good. Channel 5 wants Max
down at the news studio, Trevor McDonald’s on the line, can you
come later, earlier, today, tomorrow? He’s charming, flexible, full
of bonhomie and loving every minute of it. This is Max Clifford in
his element. If he had a tail he’d be wagging it.
It’s not quite what I’d expected of the nation’s 30th most
despised Briton (Channel 4 poll, 2004). At least, not in the same
week in which, for the first time ever, he’s been forced to pay
damages on a libel case – to Christine and Neil Hamilton (19th,
same poll). After a two-and-a-half year battle over his comments
relating to the false rape allegations of the now convicted Nadine
Milroy-Sloan, Clifford withdrew his comments and made an outof-
court settlement to the tune of £100,000 plus legal costs.
“If it had gone to court it would have cost me £1m. If I’d won,
it would still have cost me a fortune as they’ve got no money,” he
reasons. “You’ve got to be big enough to accept you made a
mistake and, on a scale of one to ten, Arsenal losing to
Man United was far more painful for me. To put it in perspective,
it cost me the same amount of money that I make every month and
far less than I gave last year to children’s charities.”
Ever the archstrategist, Clifford was playing tennis at
St George’s Tennis Club in Weybridge, near his Burwood Park
home, when the apology was read out in court, thus depriving the
Hamiltons of a victory photo opportunity. As media pundits
pointed out, it was a tactical demonstration of how to apologise
without losing face or, in PR-speak, without debasing the Max
And a brand it certainly is. Love him or loathe him, Clifford is
the only publicist most people can name. His clients have included
Mandy Allwood, mother of the octuplets, Rebecca Loos of David
Beckham notoriety and OJ Simpson. His was the controlling hand
behind front page splashes such as ‘Di’s Secret Love Trysts with
Carling’ and ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’. But it was the run
of sleaze stories about Tory ministers in the 90s that carved him a
place in history, bringing the government of the day to its knees
and destroying many careers along the way.
“I know I played my part in bringing down the last Tory
government,” he admits candidly. “I know because so many Tory
politicians have told me so. But was any of that stuff untrue? No.
Over the years I’ve exposed the hypocrisy and lies of David
Mellor, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Gary Glitter, Jonathan
King. And when they ask if I’ll go live on TV and face these
people, I say: ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’’’
This, he believes, is the kind of investigative reporting
journalists should be doing but aren’t. He has a point, but isn’t it
down to the fact that the media have become lazily dependent on
PR fixers like himself, with their endless stream of celebrity sleaze
stories, product launches and surveys? Press observers may point
to emotionalism and lack of proper reporting to explain declining
newspaper readership in this country, but did it not all start to go
wrong when tabloids traded the bond of trust for a silly season of
‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ headlines?
“Yes, I’ve created an awful lot of showbiz nonsense over the
years. Does that distort the credibility of the British media? Maybe
it plays a part. But in a free democracy I’ve also helped in (the
assertion of) a free press…
“If someone comes to me and says they’re being kicked out of
their job because some randy old chairman wants his way, then
I’ll stand in their corner. People know that, that’s why they come
If anything, he reckons, it is cynicism that is the scourge of
“Journalists can only ever see the worst. That’s why we have
such a bitter press. If they like you, you’ve fooled them.”
His case in point is Simon Cowell, pantomime villain of the Pop
Idol series and one of Clifford’s biggest clients. Not only won’t the
press believe that he’s a really nice guy underneath, he
complains, but the recent spate of stories about Cowell receiving
death threats has “not one tiny particle of truth”.
A bit rich coming from the king of manufactured images, whose
relationship with the truth is, at best, circuitous.
“A big part of PR is distorting the truth or lying,” he later goes
on to tell me. “Do I make up stories? It’s more a question of
denying something that I know to be true or trying to stop it
coming out. The bigger the star, the more time you spend
protecting them. If it’s a story about a client, I might say: ‘Yes,
what you’ve got stacks up, but give me a week and I’ll give you
something better.’ 12 months on and you’re ahead.”
Clifford currently has 15 key clients, surprisingly few for a PR
business of his size with six account managers. A mixed bag, they
include the Sinatra family, Simon Jordan (chairman of Crystal
Palace), Brian and Kerry McFadden, the British Virgin Islands,
Majestic (a Spanish property company), top plastic surgeon Alex
Karidis and, of course, Simon Cowell.
Promoting and protecting these PR clients is, he says, 95% of
the work. The scandal bit – '"What would you call it? Investigative
journalism?” – is something he juggles alongside the main job.
“Rebecca Loos comes to me, we talk, I set up exclusive
interviews and she gets £1m (of which Clifford takes 20%).”
It’s light relief, he says, “gossip over the back fence”.
“Did David Beckham get hurt by the alleged affair? Course he
didn’t. Bit of aggro from the missus, but so what?”
He has clear divides on which stories should and shouldn’t run,
believing that hypocrisy deserves its own reckoning. Adultery, for
example, is not a story unless it’s someone who is lecturing on
family values. Hence Robin Cook’s extramarital dalliances were
contained, whilst David Mellor’s hit the headlines. Chris Smith’s
HIV status, about which Clifford had known for a long time, was
not a story because it was “between him and his conscience”.
“I’ve stopped more stories from the public from coming out than
you’ve had hot dinners. I don’t get paid for doing that,” he says.
Is he influenced in deciding which stories to leak by his longstanding
support for Labour?
“I bring it out where I see it, Labour or Conservative,” he insists.
Certainly, there are less political sleaze stories these days. Is that
because Blair hasn’t made personal morality such an issue?
“No, it’s because they’re getting better at covering them up.”
Framed pictures around the office point up the variety of his
career. A rooftop photo shoot for The Beatles (his first job in PR
was in the EMI press office promoting the then unknown Liverpool
band); tongue-in-cheek letters to and from Private Eye; and much
evidence of his substantial charity work. Among other things, he
is a passionate fundraiser for the Royal Marsden Hospital, where
Elizabeth, his wife of 37 years, died two years ago of cancer.
Often he will take celebrities round the children’s wards, though
not all of them want to go.
“Many are only interested in themselves, full of self-importance.
When they’re not like that it’s a bonus.”
Children’s charities feature heavily in his efforts. Indeed, he has
a special understanding of the trauma of having a sick child.
When she was six, Clifford’s daughter Louise was diagnosed with
rheumatoid arthritis and was to spend many years in a
wheelchair. Over the past quarter of a century she has had many
operations – knee and hip replacement, a metal rod put down her
back, and last year, a kidney transplant after arthritis drugs
damaged her kidneys. Now she is more mobile and has joined
her father in the business, where she and the rest of what seems
to be an all-female staff run a remarkably jolly office.
They live together in Burwood Park. Two years ago, Louise was
in the process of moving into a specially designed flat in Walton,
when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. The past two years,
says Clifford quietly, have been a big adjustment.
Perhaps because of that, his work/life balance has a healthy
swing to it. He goes into the office three times a week. Other days,
he walks the dogs, drinks coffee at Café Aromas in Cobham
(owned by pal and client, Simon Jordan), plays tennis, maybe
lunches at the Lucky Duck in Shere, near Guildford, and takes a
million calls on his mobile. His housekeeper comes to clean for
four or five hours (he likes everything tidy), and every so often he
gets the house swept for electronic bugs as well – “a sensible
precaution in this line of work”. At weekends he stirs about nine,
puts the phones on – “They’d have been ringing all night
otherwise” – and does half a dozen radio interviews lying in bed,
drinking tea and reading the papers. He swims every day in his
own pool and spends three months a year (in two-week chunks)
in his Spanish home above Puerto Banus. He flies by private jet
(Club 328 is a client) and drives a Bentley. It’s not a bad life.
“Not bad at all for a boy from a poor South Wimbledon family
who left school at 15 with no qualifications,” he grins.
I hardly need to ask if he harbours any plans to retire.
“Why on earth would I? I love what I do. It’s stimulating, it’s
rewarding. I can get justice when the police can’t; I can get a
terminally ill little boy onto the set of EastEnders. It’s a good life.”