John Lloyd meets Max Clifford, the modern myth maker who yearns to represent Princess Dianaby John Lloyd / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Max Clifford is the best known publicist in Britain today. “Publicist” still has about it the air of its late 19th century origins: a shabby, non-gentleman type concerned to boost a product here and a personality there, hanging about newspaper offices and carrying little “tips” from source to medium, a Leopold Bloom, absorbent of a hundred slights in the pursuit of a few lines of type. Clifford bows to this in the modesty of his offices: they are in New Bond Street, but pokey and above a hairdresser. Yet he is a big player. He has crossed the line which separates news from myth, and operates on the far side of it, beaming back messages which arrest the attention and tickle the sense of humour. In helping clients such as Antonia de Sancha put her view of her affair with David Mellor; in arranging for OJ Simpson to debate at the Oxford Union; in representing Mandy Allwood, mother-to-be of octuplets, in her dealings with the News of the World, he has carved out a new niche in the plastic universe which is the modern media: that of the aggressive defence-publicist, a friend at the bar of public opinion for whom no client is untouchable, no issue too sleazy. He knows the law of the tabloid jungle-and since that law is claiming suzerainty over more and more of the broadcast media, his field of manoeuvre is growing. The first law is that all the news must be fitted up to be printed: it must be moulded into a form which suits the interests, prejudices, sentiments and sense of justice of the mass audience. This has always been the case: tabloid reporters are more skilled than those working for broadsheet newspapers because the latter have the easier job of representing some form of events’ complexities, whereas the former must discern in these events the kernel of myth, and make of that the “story.” It is the world of the fundamental things-love, duty, honour, betrayal-the subject of country and western songs, the things which still apply. To move in these worlds takes, as Clifford says, a great deal of discipline. What he demands of his clients-they have included Frank Sinatra and Elton John-is absolute trust in him. They must put themselves in his hands, without reservation. He will fashion of their raw material what he can, but only if they agree to be inert clay. “Putty in his hands” is literally what Max Clifford seeks. Thus if the headline were Elton John Ate My Hamster, the quotes must be produced from somewhere to back it up. If it is particularly piquant that a cabinet minister went to bed with his mistress wearing a Chelsea shirt, then it will be said that he did (is he going to object to the shirt, having admitted the liaison? It seems like quibbling). If OJ has to be de-demonised to fit the sensibilities of an audience which thinks him guilty as charged (which audience did not?) then he must be said to have said that he might like to settle in the UK, and is looking at houses. If Mandy Allwood is to be worth the attention and the fee, then she must swear that she wants to have all eight children-injecting her condition straight into the vein of the current debate on abortion. Debates are debates but people are people, and it is to them that other people warm or from them that they recoil. Clifford is expert at making them warm to those from whom they have recoiled-or make them do both at the same time. The superstars of today are those whose lives-not screen or fictional lives, but “real” lives-are the stuff of which modern morality plays are made. And since they are plays, the plot can change; since they are plays, the actors must learn their lines even where the plots are those of their “own,” their “private” lives. This is, as the word goes, radical. What was a gleam in the eye of the Hollywood publicists of the 1920s and 1930s, the start of something big with the private-public lives of such tyros as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, is now a full fledged industry with rules being written by Clifford and his fellows. His dream-which may never be realised, for there are limits-is to have Princess Diana as his client, and mould the rest of her life into squeezing what can still be made of the Princess of Hearts, then decompressing the image to the matron of middle years, “still gorgeous” but maturing as well as alluring; then passing into King-Motherhood-wise, a twinkle in the eye and “that famous smile” still “working its magic”-adored for her longevity, famous for her fame. What a creation for a modern Dr Frankenstein. She would be wise to submit to him, but she may be too wilful, or he too low rent. But they inhabit the same universe: the private life as 19th century novel. Would he do the same for the Labour leadership? He is a Labour supporter, and avo-wedly a passionate one; when I asked him why, he said that he hated what privilege did to the powerless, and cited David Mellor-a man for whom he seems to bear a particular detestation. No-that is a cultural leap too far. The images which are released of the happy, thoroughly modern Blair family are the limit, one can assume. The Clinton psychodrama is not yet for us, though who knows? We have adopted much of that world, and Max will be around for some time to test how much more the market will bear.