Richard Desmond still revels in the controversy
Media needs characters, and they don’t come much larger than Northern & Shell founder, and now owner of Channel 5, Richard Desmond.
The 59-year-old entrepreneur, whose empire has been valued at £950m, was in typically feisty form this week ahead of his CNBC interview tonight with Tania Bryer (10pm if you’re interested).
Speaking to him at CNBC’s shiny new London studio it soon became apparent he really still enjoys winding up his media brethren.I asked about his circulation ambitions for mid-market newspaper Daily Express (632,000), and without missing a beat he said he hopes it can overtake the Daily Mirror (1.17m) and the Daily Mail (2.1m). Let’s remember this is coming from the man who last year offered Rupert Murdoch £1bn to buy The Sun. And Desmond has no qualms in attracting Murdoch’s attention again, when he started waxing lyrical about the future of the long-awaiting internet TV service YouView.
The co-owned venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, TalkTalk, BT and Arqiva, has been delayed from going on sale twice. It’s now expected to launch in the spring 2012 after Desmond encouraged Lord Sugar to get involved as non executive chairman. Desmond has no doubt its launch will be a success, and that it will be at the cost of Sky’s 10m + subscribers.
“YouView is probably going to be the biggest thing on television since Sky launched,” he said. “It’s fantastic. From a viewer point of view, you can go back seven days. You can go through and purchase [advertised products] direct on screen because it’s an internet-based television, and you won’t have to subscribe to Sky.
“Like Freeview you have your box, and if you want to watch football, you can go to the BT site, if you want to watch films you go to Channel 5… it’s going to be big.”
So can he imagine people leaving Sky’s subscription then? “For sure, absolutely. No question. Everyone’s skint. You pay Sky £1,000 a year, and you’ll be able to get all that through YouView.”
Among the snippets in the CNBC interview is how the former publisher of Asian Babes, Horny Housewives and Spunk Loving Sluts, still baulks at being called a porn baron. Meanwhile, Channel 5’s performance is described by Desmond’s equally colourful sidekick Stan Myerson as “going very, very well” this year. In April sales are reported to be up 36%, and year to date 24 and a half per cent.
Ranked the 76th richest man in the country in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Desmond’s personal wealth has often jarred with those struggling with ‘efficiency drives’ across his businesses. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in his 10 years at the helm of Express Newspapers, where cost savings on subbing and news desks have left the papers stripped to the bone.
Staffers at the Daily and Sunday Express will perhaps have found some solace however in his outright denial that he is looking to sell the newspapers – “All this shit about me selling the papers… I can tell you now, we are categorically not looking to sell the papers.”
Northern & Shell’s £100m investment in printing presses certainly underlines a commitment to print (the likes of which The Guardian has suggested it will probably never do again), yet to call him an industry supporter remains a bit of a stretch.
Despite having a portfolio of successful magazines including OK!, Desmond’s never shown any interest in joining the industry association PPA, or with really engaging with his peers on any level. Similarly, he dropped out of the Newspaper Publishers Association four years ago, and remains particularly dismissive when asked why.
“One of the reasons we’re not members of the NPA is because they have about 30 people worried about the newspaper distribution system. At the end of the day the wholesale distribution system is a very efficient system, and it works,” he said. “There are only two players but it works. Move on.”
The only time Desmond paused for thought during our entire encounter was when asked why he had pulled Northern & Shell out of the Press Complaints Commission at the start of the year. The move has effectively undermined the entire premise of the UK’s newspaper industry’s self-regulatory system and has drawn criticism from many quarters. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, no less, has openly criticised the media mogul for bringing statutory regulation “a step closer”.
So why did he really end his payments to the body that funds it? After a few seconds, he whispers a response that is as nonchalant and inflamatory as it is, perhaps, poignant: “Because I don’t want to be with a bunch of fucking phone hackers.”