Full Exposure: PR King Spins News for Cash To Brit Tabloids
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 21, 2004; Page C01
LONDON -- Max Clifford got the first phone call in January. It was from a 26-year-old former personal assistant to soccer star David Beckham. She told Clifford she was being pursued by newspaper reporters seeking to confirm rumors that she had had an affair with her ex-boss, an international sports icon with an ex-pop-star wife, a $45 million contract with Real Madrid -- the New York Yankees of European soccer -- and more than $50 million in endorsements.
Clifford, who is one of Britain's foremost publicity agents, says he laid out her options: She could refuse to cooperate, or she could confirm the story and try to steer the reporters to present the most favorable account of her actions.
He also told her she might be able to make a lot of money.
Three months later the News of the World, Britain's largest and most carnivorous Sunday tabloid, broke the story on its front page. Rebecca Loos was quoted as having no comment. But an unnamed "close family friend" provided a host of lurid details, including direct quotes of what Beckham and Loos reportedly said to each other in bed, plus intimate text-messages sent to her on Beckham's cell phone.
Once upon a time, a damsel whose reputation was under threat might turn to a knight in shining armor or a private eye. But this being the Media Age, she's more likely to call Max Clifford.
He stands at the intersection of news and gossip, playing middleman between the famous, those who wish they were and the voracious tabloid press. Some clients pay him to keep their private lives out of the newspaper, others to see their names in print. Reputations get trashed. Saints and sinners alike are disrobed. And money changes hands.
Big money, in Loos's case. Although Beckham denounced the report as "ludicrous" and "absurd," and other newspapers focused on her alleged promiscuity, Loos sold her story not only to News of the World but to Sky TV and other European broadcasters. So far, she and Clifford estimate she's made around $1.4 million -- 20 percent of which has gone to Clifford.
Offers of magazine photo spreads and jobs as a talk show hostess or reality program contestant are flooding in from Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. Running down the list recently in Clifford's cluttered New Bond Street office, Loos credits him with steering her through. "That's down to Max," she says. "Absolutely."
Others are less complimentary. Columnist and author Allison Pearson once branded Clifford "the modern Mephistopheles. His business is tempting people to sell their souls."
Clifford cheerfully concedes he makes a good living in part by helping trash the reputations of the rich and famous. "Over here we probably have the most savage media in the world," he says of the tabloids he works with. "They are destroying far more than they are aiding, helping, supporting." Still, he insists, he himself is not to blame: "It's what people want. It's the British public. It's what people want to read about."
In many ways Clifford, 61, is a throwback to an earlier era. While modern public relations is generally a high-volume affair run out of big corporate agencies, Clifford works out of a small cubicle atop a clothing boutique in central London. A half-dozen young women -- including his 31-year-old daughter Louise -- do research, answer the phones and deal with his clients. He says he never signs contracts -- all business is done on trust.
The office walls are covered with framed front pages of Clifford's greatest hits. He played a pivotal role in nailing Jeffrey Archer for perjury, derailing the best-selling novelist's political career and earning Archer a four-year prison sentence ("ARCHER QUITS IN DISGRACE"). He helped set up the sting in which Sophie Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, the youngest of Queen Elizabeth's children, was caught on tape peddling access and gossip about the royal family for cash to a fake Saudi businessman ("UPROAR OVER COUNTESS'S INDISCRETIONS").
And he helped expose links between Cherie Blair, wife of the British prime minister, and an Australian con man who sought to profit from his girlfriend's connection to the prime minister's wife ("BLAIRS IN SLEAZE ROW OVER FRAUDSTER").
"Max has become synonymous with this particular kind of journalism," says former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, who himself once suffered collateral damage from a Clifford exposé. "The tabloids are getting nastier all the time, but you can't blame him for it -- he didn't create the tabloids; he's simply a facilitator. If Max Clifford didn't exist, they'd invent someone."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company