A daring raid by The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail and Hello! has stolen one of Richard Desmond’s prize assets, Posh Spice, from under his nose.
The three publications joined forces to snap up Victoria Beckham’s autobiography in an estimated £750,000 deal after they discovered that Express proprietor Desmond had been sitting on the contract for eight months.
What is clearly one of the publishing coups of the decade began three weeks ago when Hello! editor-in-chief Phil Hall and MoS deputy editor Rod Gilchrist got together to talk about potential spoilers against what they then thought was a cut-and-dried deal between the Beckhams and Desmond.
They believed a £900,000 contract had already been signed and that publication would span the Sunday and Daily Expresses and OK! magazine.
But they discovered in a call to book publisher Penguin that although a deal had been agreed in principle back in December, Desmond had not yet signed the contract or paid the money.
Penguin, which is thought to have paid Victoria Beckham around £1m for the book, was becoming increasingly anxious about its investment.
A senior Associated Newspapers executive said: "As soon as we realised the situation we stitched a deal together very quickly and had an offer on the table almost immediately.
"Everybody worked in harmony as we all had great things to gain from it. The Beckhams are the Taylor and Burton of their age. Richard Desmond had them but he let them go and it has all ended in tears and recriminations."
The MoS is spending a further £300,000 on TV advertising for the book, Learning to Fly, which chronicles Vicoria’s life since childhood and includes details of eating disorders, how her relationship with David developed and the split with Geri Halliwell, illustrated with more than 50 previously unpublished photographs.
The Daily Mail will kick the whole thing off on Saturday with an interview by feature writer Alice Fowler. Serialisation of the book itself starts in the MoS this weekend and continues in the Daily Mail on Monday for a week, with Hello! getting two bites of the cherry on two successive weeks.
Hall has done his own hour-long interview with Victoria and Hello! will focus on the Beckham romance.
The deal has enraged Desmond, who previously promoted and protected the couple to such an extent that editors were not even allowed to call them by their nicknames.
Now it appears to be open season on the Beckhams at Express Newspapers, with the Daily Star claiming in Monday’s splash, headlined "Posh Off", that Posh’s solo debut was "ruined when she was caught miming".
OK! ran a spoiler last week, using old pictures and a cobbled-together book by Virginia Blackburn, which the Daily Express picked up on. Adding to the hype surrounding the autobiography, the News of the World splashed on a story about Posh begging her husband to join a London club so that she can be near her friends.
Desmond’s spokesman denied there was a cash-flow problem at Express Newspapers. "It was a purely commercial decision in terms of circulation gains. It simply wasn’t worth it."
By Philippa Kennedy