Sacked Sunday Express critic tells of being told to change star ratings and get free theatre tickets for Desmond

The Sunday Express’s former theatre critic has claimed he was compelled to change star ratings and get hold of free tickets for senior staff, including owner Richard Desmond, during his time at the paper.

Mark Shenton was sacked by Express Newspapers last December after photographs of him on a gay porn website in the United States were brought to the attention of his employer. He is now suing the publisher for unfair dismissal.

Shenton, who is gay, was paid a monthly retainer for writing a weekly column in the Sunday Express between April 2002 and December 2013. He also wrote, and continues to write, for other publications, such as The Stage. But he considered the Sunday Express his employer.

He has accused the publisher of hypocrisy, pointing to owner Richard Desmond's background as a publisher of adult titles.

In a witness statement read out at an employment tribunal and seen by Press Gazette, Shenton listed several examples of how his reviews and features were “dictated and moulded”. His Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend said there were a "number of factual allegations made by Mr Shenton in his witness statement which were withdrawn by him during the hearing".

“I was generally not told which shows to review as I was trusted by my editors at the Sunday Express to know what was appropriate to cover,” Shenton said in his statement.

“That being said, there were several occasions when my content was dictated and moulded by editors at the Sunday Express.”

  • He claimed that on one occasion his review of Rock Of Ages was replaced with a “much more positive review from an in-house journalist”. Shenton said he suspected this may have been because the show’s head of PR was a former Sunday Express music editor
  • In November 2011, he claimed he was asked him to “amend” a rating of Scrooge, from three stars to five stars. Despite the fact that he was worried this would affect the “credibility” of him and the paper, Shenton did change the rating to four stars. He said: “If I had refused to amend the ratings I think I would have been disciplined"
  • Shenton also highlighted, as an example of “how my editors would control my content”, a feature he wrote about a nine-year-old actor who was performing at the Young Vic. He said he wrote the piece despite the fact “I was not convinced that a nine-year-old actor would have anything to say of interest to the Sunday Express’s adult readers”. He claimed that editor Townsend asked him to do it because Northern and Shell joint managing director Martin Ellice was friends with the nine-year-old’s father
  • Shenton claimed that ahead of an interview with actress Amanda Holden in June 2011 he was “instructed” by Townsend to ask about her recent miscarriage. The journalist said he “found this distasteful in the extreme” and did not do it because her PR was sitting in on the interview and said it would have been brought to an end if he’d mentioned the miscarriage. Shenton said Townsend pulled the feature, “citing the fact that she was ‘withholding’ on the subject of her miscarriage”.

Shenton said: “I was often asked but my senior managers at the Sunday Express to provide them with free tickets, which I felt obliged to comply with and it was assumed by the Sunday Express that I would be able to provide them because I feel that I could not deny my boss a personal request.

“I was repeatedly asked for tickets for productions, sometimes for Martin Townsend and his friends and family, and sometimes more senior staff at Express Newspapers such as The Chairman [as he is “always referred to internally”], Richard Desmond.”

Richard Desmond: Pictured, Reuters

He added: “It was by Martin Townsend that I would comply with these requests and I felt under a lot of pressure to do so.

“I recall in particular one occasion where he had called me asking for three free tickets for Richard Desmond to see The Ladykillers in or around September 2013.

“When Martin called me he told me he was with The Chairman at the time and was relying on me to say that I could get the tickets so that he was not shown up.

“I always tried to comply with Martin Townsend’s requests despite the fact that on some occasions doing was to my personal detriment as they could put a strain on my relationships with PRs for productions."

He added: “For example, where I was asked to provide Richard Desmond with tickets for The Ladykillers, this had been a rare occasion where Express Newspapers had not initially published my interview feature with two of the stars of the show, which put me in a difficult position, as I was now asking for free tickets for a show that had been denied the promised publicity.

“Once I had explained this, I really had to push for my feature to be published online (instead of in the paper as originally agreed) which, eventually, [arts editor] Clair Woodward agreed to do.

“At no other publication was I asked to provide staff with free tickets for productions nor would I have felt under an obligation to comply with any such requests. Nor did I provide sets of free tickets to friends.”

He also told how the newspaper “exercised control over my personal correspondence”, citing the example of a Twitter spat with fellow critic Tim Walker, of the Telegraph, in which he referred to him as The “Sunday Telegraph’s chief theatre cretin”.

When Walker complained to Townsend, the editor called Shenton “referred to the paper’s ‘Better Mental Health’ campaign” and told him to apologise.

The sacking

On 27 November last year, Shenton said he was informed by Townsend (right) that a “serious allegation had been made” against him and that he must come in for a meeting that Friday (29 November) at 5pm.

Shenton said that he was not given any further explanation for the meeting, which was to be attended by a member of HR staff, and calls he made to Townsend – who knew Shenton suffered from depression – seeking more information were ignored for the 55 hours between the call and the meeting.

In this period he said he sent an email to Townsend saying: “I am obviously deeply concerned about the implications of having an accusation made against me that I am not in a position to answer or defence, since I have no idea what it is.

“I am ready and willing to come over to your offices this afternoon if you are able to see me. Could you alternatively put me in touch with a HR officer I could speak to instead?”

He also said he nformed Woodward of his anxiety. Before the meeting, Shenton submitted his copy on Thursday morning as he did each week.

In the statement, Shenton told how he was so upset by the ordeal that he went for a walk “genuinely considering whether I should throw myself into the traffic”.

In the meeting with Townsend and HR worker Julie Fullilove it emerged that a ‘reader’ by the name of Sam Walker – who Shenton suspects is an ex-boyfriend of his writing under pseudonym – had sent in “unpleasant” photographs of Shenton on a website called Bulk Male, a male porn site. Walker claimed to be a family man who would not be reading the Sunday Express any longer with Shenton as a columnist.

The photographs, Shenton said, were taken in a private capacity in San Francisco in 1999. He was not aware they would be on the website. Shenton said he was aware they had been in the Bulk Male magazine some time ago – also without his consent – but did not know it had a website.

“Martin and Julie mentioned that these photos might have the potential to bring Express Newspapers into disrepute,” he said.

“I felt a chill up my spine when they said that. I felt that the word ‘disrepute’ was loaded. It was a value judgment on me suggesting shame and embarrassment.

“I remember saying that I was totally unembarrassed by the pictures and reminded them that I was an openly gay man and so had nothing to be ashamed of.”

He added: “I was also aware that Richard Desmond was involved in making commercial money from straight pornography (although I was not aware of his involvement in gay pornography at the time) and I mentioned this in the meeting. I felt that I would not be being questioned like this if these were straight photographs.

“However, I certainly did not ‘slander’ him as Julie Fullilove’s notes of that meeting suggest.”

Although Shenton was told there would be an investigation before a decision was made about his future, he felt that they had “already made their minds up”.

While he waited for the verdict, he informed his editor at The Stage of the allegations, who said: “Personal lives are personal lives.”

Shenton was sacked on 4 December. Of the second meeting, when he was given the news, Shenton said: “I remember feeling outraged and affronted at the way in which Julie told me about one member of her staff ‘having to go’ onto the Bulk Male website…

“Her tone was very accusatory and she made it clear that she was cross that I had made members of her staff look at the website.”

Shenton said: “I was feeling more than slightly outraged at what I considered to be a hypocritical stance, given that these pictures were behind a paywall whereas Richard Desmond has made money from and was associated with commercial pornography media. I was indignant and outraged.”

He described the accusation that he had “stormed out [of] the meeting" as "utterly laughable”.

Shenton and Express Newspapers are currently awaiting the employment tribunal's decision.

Press Gazette put all the points raised by Shenton to Sunday Express editor Townsend.

He said: "Thank you for your email of 19 September which I was slightly surprised to receive. I have also been passed emails that you have sent to Clair Woodward and Martin Ellice.

"As you presumably know, Mr Shenton's case was heard by the Employment Tribunal in Croydon just over four weeks ago. All of his legal claims were denied by the respondents. There were a number of factual allegations made by Mr Shenton in his witness statement which were withdrawn by him during the hearing and other factual assertions which were challenged by the respondents.
 
"We hope to receive the judgement in the not too distant future. As well as making a decision on the legal claims, one of the roles of the Employment Tribunal is to make findings of fact. In those circumstances, I find it surprising that you should be contemplating running a story at this stage when the decision of the Employment Tribunal may render much – if not all – of what you write wholly inaccurate.

"Against that background, it is not appropriate for us to comment on the claims which you identify. Indeed, it strikes me that to do so would be extremely disrespectful to the Employment Tribunal. The Sunday Express made its position clear in the appropriate forum – i.e. during the hearing. It will not be making any further comment or statement until it has considered the judgement of the Employment Tribunal when that is available."

In response to this Shenton said: "In the court, I was inevitably challenged on various statements by the respondent's barrister – these were mostly to do with 'word games' around the difference between 'ordering' and 'requesting' things like tickets, 'demanding' or 'requesting' me to ask Amanda Holden about her misscarriage etc…

"I stand by the witness statement, which remains an accurate reflection of what I was asked, required or demanded to do (depending on the interpretation they wish to ascribe to the request, which was mainly to do with establishing my employment status)."

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