Newspaper proprietor Richard Desmond was prepared to “tell lies at the drop of a hat”, the High Court heard today.
Desmond was being questioned on the second day of his libel action against Tom Bower over claims in the writer’s biography of Conrad Black that the owner of the Express group abused his position to pursue a personal vendetta against Black and was then forced into a humiliating climbdown.
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His QC, Ian Winter, has told Mr Justice Eady and a London jury that the allegations in Conrad And Lady Black: Dancing On The Edge were “highly defamatory and wholly false”.
Bower denies libel and says that what he wrote was substantially true and was not, in any event, defamatory.
Desmond, who denied that he had received three letters from Bower before the book’s 2006 publication, said that he first read it on holiday in Majorca in August 2007.
He branded the passage about himself as inaccurate and “a terrible thing to say about somebody” in a reference book which would be read for many years.
“I read books about Beaverbrook and Rothermere today. I read these books, I believe these books and I quote these books.”
If people believed that he could be “ground into dust”, as the book claimed, they would negotiate with him in a different way.
Under cross-examination by Bower’s counsel, Ronald Thwaites QC, Desmond said it would be unacceptable for a newspaper owner to use his paper to act out his grudges, and he did not believe any owner did that.
He referred to a May 2001 confidential memo sent to Desmond by the then Sunday Express editor Michael Pilgrim, Desmond said that the first thing he knew of it was when he was shown it by his lawyers in June this year as he prepared his witness statement.
The memo, which was leaked to the Observer, complained of management pressure to run damaging stories about Conrad Black, with whom Desmond was then involved in a dispute about the West Ferry printing works.
Desmond said that Pilgrim had never complained to him or the independent editorial board.
He did not even know why Pilgrim – who was suspended the day after the Observer piece appeared – left the company.
Thwaites said: “It is perfectly clear you will tell lies at the drop of a hat. You are prepared to say anything to promote your case.”
Desmond: “No, that is not true.”
Thwaites asked whether Desmond had enquired what had happened to Pilgrim.
“It’s normal to ask – even if my cleaning lady has gone – what has happened to her – never mind my editor. Did he take early retirement? Wasn’t he well?”
Desmond said that he was a businessman and not an editorial person and there were a lot of changes in the first few months of taking over the paper.
Thwaites: “I suggest that the reality is that Mr Pilgrim lost his job for speaking out about management interference in editorial matters – which complaint was unacceptable to you.”
Desmond: “No, I never heard of this. Michael Pilgrim was always very friendly, very warm. Once he applauded when I walked into a room – if anything he went over the top in welcoming us in. He was a very nice fellow, I thought.”
Thwaites: “So, he didn’t deserve his miserable future.”
Desmond ‘wanted all the shit on Black’
Counsel asked Desmond whether, in September 2001, he had told Pilgrim’s successor, Martin Townsend, to tell David Hellier, then editor of the newspaper’s Media Uncovered section, that he wanted “all the shit” on Black.
Desmond: “I gave no orders. I give no orders on the editorial. The editor decides what goes in the papers.”
Thwaites alleged that, because Hellier was not prepared to play that “dirty game”, he had called in sick, ceased to edit the section and subsequently issued a statement through the National Union of Journalists complaining of editorial interference.
Desmond said that he did not know anything about that.
Thwaites asked why Mr Hellier’s successor on the section, Anil Bhoryul, had produced 26 negative articles about Black and Hollinger between September 2001 and May 2003.
Desmond denied that this was in line with his wishes or that Townsend was a “compliant” editor.
Thwaites: “I suggest your dislike of Conrad Black was extremely well-known within your organisation.”
Desmond: “I did not dislike Conrad Black. They were trying to steal our printing plant at the beginning by making us a very low offer – once that was over, onwards we went.”
Thwaites added: “I suggest you run the editor when it suits you to do so.”
Desmond: “I think you’ve made that point and I’ve denied it.”
Desmond denied that he was furious with Black after the conclusion of the West Ferry dispute and maintained they remained “business friends”.
“Once this was sorted out and we were back on the board, everything was fine – bearing in mind the two different cultures of company.
“One was run by very clever lawyers as opposed to operational people who had built up a business over some 40 years.”
Thwaites said that Mr Desmond’s personal correspondence with Black, which he relied on in support of his case, ended on “a highly acrimonious note” in March 2002 – the month of the conclusion of the West Ferry litigation.
Desmond said that he was still in touch with the now disgraced Black, who is serving a sentence for fraud in the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, and had been in contact with him about the libel case.
Thwaites: “Is there a prison correspondence between the two of you? `Dear Conrad, how’s your cell? Hope you have enough blankets’.”
Desmond: “That’s very insulting.”
Desmond visited Black in prison
He added that Black had contacted him and he had visited the prison for the first time last Thursday, but could not get in.
Desmond said that Black had wished him luck with the case.
His principal purpose for the visit was to see how Black was, and because Black had emailed him offering his help by stating that Desmond had not been crushed by him at the September 2003 libel mediation mentioned in Bower’s book.
Thwaites asked whether, if Black was available, he would be a witness for Desmond.
Desmond: “I believe he would tell the truth as to what happened in the mediation.”
Thwaites asked Mr Desmond whether this was despite Black having been written about in “savage and negative” terms in his newspaper on his instructions.
Desmond: “You know it wasn’t on my instructions. He knows that. He knows the way newspapers work. I know it. You have editors and reporters and they write what they want to write.”