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April 30, 2014

How Fleet Street blindly and willingly played along with Max Clifford’s PR games

It was good to see Roy Greenslade being a touch magnanimous about Max Clifford in his Guardian blog. I have been surprised to see certain others chasing the blue light to the radio and TV studios to put the boot in to one they once so openly loved. 

The Professor, for that is what he is, resisted kicking Max "now he is down" because he happily admits to plenty of dealings with him back in the day. I know that's true because I was the wide-eyed young journalist Roy sent on a story that became Max's first front page exclusive. 

It was November 1986 and I was 21. A few weeks earlier I had been sacked from my first job in journalism, on the Wimbledon News, for moonlighting on The Sun. I had little option but to try and make it full-time in Fleet Street at an absurdly young age. I managed to get more casual shifts at Wapping. It was an exhilarating, yet supremely stressful time that shredded the nerves on an hourly basis.

Thanks to Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun newsroom of that era was a wretched place. His driving motto greeted you each day in the form of a large sign on the wall: "DO IT TO THEM BEFORE THEY DO IT TO YOU". Sadly, a few fellow workers enjoyed doing "it" to others in the office, not just the opposition. 

Somehow, I landed two major scoops in my first few nights – exclusive "reaction" interviews with Boy George and Noel Edmonds on two big news stories ahead of all others on The Street. This prompted news editor Tom Petrie to remark: "We can't work out if you are good or lucky. Let's hope you are both!" 

On newspapers, they like a hack on a roll. They keep you going until you cock up, then they burn you. At least that's how it worked on The Super Soaraway in the 1980s. Tom put me forward for a 'special' the features department had, which is when I met Roy Greenslade for the first time. 

Roy outlined the situation: "An EastEnders star is cheating on his fiancée with her sister…go to this nightlcub and meet a man called Max Clifford…" The "star" was in fact a bit-part actor who was already an ex-EastEnder (Simon Henderson. Eh?) and the club was the Broadway Boulevard in Ealing. All very once-removed, but I recall an excited Martin Dunn coming into Roy's office to check who was doing the story.

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The snapper and I duly waited outside the club later that evening. I remember Max pulling up in his silver Jaguar/Daimler and struggling to park. He kept bumping into other cars. No doubt he had over-estimated the length he had to play with!

Inside an eerily empty nightclub, we saw the ex-EastEnder canoodling with a woman. Max wanted to know my game plan. "Well, I have to ask him straight up why he's not with his fiancée?" "That's a bit direct, isn't it?" he said. "Let me have a chat first."

Sure enough, a few minutes later I was interviewing the "star" and his girl. There was plenty of giggling and some unexpectedly candid quotes and they even posed up for a photo. At the time, I thought it was all a bit odd. A chat with the nightclub owner didn't help. "Max is great at getting me publicity," he sniggered, then handed me a VIP membership card to the club. Showing precocious ligging skills, I gleefully accepted. Sadly, Ealing was never exactly convenient for a lad living in Sydenham.

I duly wrote the story and Roy was delighted. It became a clearly desperate Sunday-for-Monday splash the following week – EASTENDERS STAR CHEATS FIANCEE. By coincidence, my purple patch had continued and I landed the other big story on that front page – another exclusive with Noel (both my stories were subjected to artful byline banditry by staffers Paul Hooper and Phil Dampier. Bastards!).

Tom Petrie asked me to get a follow-up from the fiancée, so I called Max for a steer, then a funny thing happened. "Actually, she's asked me to look after her story and is happy to chat….I think five grand should do it," he said. I told Tom, who was momentarily perplexed, then he sighed. "I think Mr Clifford is playing games with us." Features eventually did the buy-up.

It was such a ridiculously obvious PR game and we all willingly, blindly fell for it. It was only later that Max's games changed. The money got bigger and the lies got nastier and the newspapers lapped it all up. And I include those "worthier" newspapers that filled acres of newsprint following the stories he peddled.

I didn't work with Max again. I always saw him at newspaper Christmas parties and then I went along for a general chat at his Bond Street office in 1998 to, as he put it "get something going". Thankfully, we never did. I took along the cutting from '86 and we laughed about the story before he signed it: "To Robin, Our first front page!! Those were the days!!" he wrote.

Indeed they were. Such innocent days. Or so it seemed.

Rob McGibbon is a freelance journalist. He writes The Definite Article interview column in the Daily Mail's Saturday magazine Weekend. Follow him on Twitter @robmcgibbon.

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