Richard Desmond (left) with George Osborne in 2010
Richard Clive Desmond
8 December 1951
Hampstead, London, England
|Years active||since 1972|
|Net worth||£2.6 billion (Sunday Times Rich List, 2019)|
|Television||Television X (1995-2016)|
Red Hot TV (2000-2016)
Channel 5 (2010-2014)
|Children||1 daughter, 2 sons|
Richard Clive Desmond (born 8 December 1951) is a British publisher, businessman and philanthropist. He is the former owner of Express Newspapers and founder of Northern & Shell, which publishes various celebrity magazines, such as OK! and New!, and British national newspapers Daily Star and Daily Express. Express Newspapers were sold to Reach Plc (formerly Trinity Mirror) for a consideration of £200m of which £74m was invested in the Express newspapers pension scheme until 2027. Northern & Shell owned Channel 5 before selling it to US broadcaster Viacom for £463m in May 2014. The company sold its adult television network, Portland, in April 2016 for less than £1m.
In 2010, Desmond was ranked the equal-57th richest man in Britain according to The Sunday Times Rich List, with a net worth of £950 million. In 2014, he was ranked 78th and worth £1.2 billion. In 2016 Forbes estimated his fortune at close to $1.49 billion, while the 2016 Sunday Times Rich List reported his net worth at £2.25 billion. According to the most recent Sunday Times Rich List in 2019, Desmond has a net worth of £2.6 billion.
In 2015, Desmond released his autobiography The Real Deal.
Desmond was born in Hampstead, London, into a Jewish family, the youngest of three children, and grew up in Edgware, in north west London. His father was descended from Latvian Jews, and his mother was of Ukrainian-Jewish descent. His father, Cyril, was at one time managing director of cinema advertising company Pearl & Dean. An ear infection caused the sudden loss of Cyril's hearing and, according to Richard, he used to take him along, when he was no more than three years old, to act as "his ears" in business meetings, where he ostensibly acquired his "first taste of business dealings". After Cyril lost a significant amount of family money to gambling, his parents divorced and 11-year-old Desmond moved with his mother, Millie, into a flat above a garage; he has described his impoverished early adolescence as a time when he was "very fat and very lonely".
Desmond left school at 15 and started working in the classified advertisements section of the Thomson Group, while playing the drums at gigs after a day's work. After moving to another company, he became sales director of Beat Instrumental Magazine at 18. Desmond owned two record shops by the time he was 21. In the mid-1970s, Desmond combined his interest in music and advertising to found, with Ray Hammond, International Musician and Recording World, a monthly magazine for musicians, eventually driving out of business long-established publications such as Beat Instrumental.
He was an early pioneer of the international licensing of magazines: International Musician soon had editions in the US, Australia, Japan, Germany as well as the UK. This was followed by the publication of Home Organist, whose editor contributed the old-school motto Forti Nihil Difficile ("Nothing is difficult for the strong" - it was Disraeli's motto), still used by the Northern & Shell publishing group. Desmond eventually bought out Hammond.
In 1982, Northern & Shell began to publish the UK edition of Penthouse, although the licensing deal ended in the 1990s. The company soon moved on to publishing a range of adult titles, including Asian Babes, alongside about 40 other specialist publications, on subjects such as green issues, bicycles, fitness, stamps, cars and cooking. It was the first company to move to the revamped Docklands and the Princess Royal opened the offices, which were cleaned temporarily of all evidence of Penthouse. When the company moved to the Northern & Shell Tower, the Duke of Edinburgh presided over the ceremonies.
Northern & Shell began publication of the celebrity OK! magazine as a monthly in 1993, later becoming a weekly in March 1996. It is the largest weekly magazine in the world, with 23 separate editions from the US to Australia to Azerbaijan and with a readership in excess of 31 million. It was originally an imitation of Hello! magazine but now outsells its rival.
Desmond had made a deal in 1991 with Norman Chanes for running advertisements in his adult titles for telephone sex lines run by Chanes mafia associate, Richard Martino of the Gambino crime family. BBC News reported in 2004 that Desmond did not know the other two men were connected to organised crime, while a spokesman for Northern and Shell said in 2005 that Desmond had never met Martino or had dealings with him.
This deal reportedly left the Americans out of pocket. Desmond has asserted that this account is false.
In February 2005, The Guardian reported that the claim Desmond had received death threats from the New York Gambino mafia family was contained in affidavits from FBI agents released during Martino's trial relating to the fraudulent use of the telephone lines. Martino pleaded guilty to the charge of trying to extort money from Desmond and Northern and Shell. Desmond has denied the whole episode; he asserted there was no evidence he knew about the fraud perpetrated by Martino.
In November 2000, Northern & Shell acquired Express Newspapers from United News & Media for £125 million, enlarging the group to include the Daily and Sunday Express titles, the Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday (which Desmond started), and the Irish Daily Star (owned jointly with the Irish Independent News & Media group). The Daily and Sunday Express each sell around 700,000 copies per issue. The Daily Star was the only national paper to increase sales year on year with an 18% increase from September 2008 to September 2009 [needs update] and circulation figures of around 850,000, largely due to aggressive pricing policies which significantly undercut competitors such as The Sun.
After buying Express Newspapers, Desmond became embroiled in a feud with Viscount Rothermere, publisher of the Daily Mail, the rival to the Daily Express, largely derived from stories relating to Rothermere's private life.
In February 2004, in a move that some newspapers interpreted as an attempt to clear and bolster his image in view of his bid for the Daily Telegraph, Desmond sold the adult magazine business to Remnant Media for approximately £10 million.
In April 2004, the Daily Express reverted to supporting the Conservatives, after a period backing Labour. On the same day, Desmond accused The Daily Telegraph, (with which he was a joint venture partner in the West Ferry newspaper printing plant) then considering accepting a takeover by the German Axel Springer group, of giving in to Nazis. Desmond reportedly harangued The Daily Telegraph chief executive and associates in faux German at a business meeting and imitated Adolf Hitler. This incident was described as a form of institutionalised racism prevalent among newspaper proprietors. Previously, in August 2001, the National Union of Journalists' chapel at the Express & Star also condemned Desmond for the newspaper's "hysterical and racist" campaign against asylum seekers; this campaign was also criticised by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing for The Independent in June 2002.
In August 2005, the former executive editor of the Daily Express Ted Young made an out-of-court settlement with Desmond's company ahead of an industrial tribunal. This related to an incident with Desmond in the newsroom in September 2004, during which Desmond was said to have hit the journalist. Desmond has repeatedly denied the claims.
Desmond is often referred to as "Richard 'Dirty' Desmond" or "Dirty Des" in the Private Eye magazine due to his company Northern & Shell formerly owning a number of pornographic magazines and television channels. Desmond was apparently "wounded" by references to himself as a pornographer. In an interview with BBC Breakfast in 2015, Desmond was referred to as Digi Des due to his investments in digital media. A headline in the Evening Standard in 2000 said "Porn Publisher to Buy Express" in reference to Desmond. In a 2002 interview for BBC Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, Tony Blair was asked if it were appropriate to accept a controversial £100,000 donation from Desmond due to Desmond's links with the pornography industry, to which Blair replied "if someone is fit and proper to own one of the major national newspaper groups in the country then there is no reason why we would not accept donations from them". Desmond has emphasised that his material has been available through WHSmith and Freeview, saying that: "If it was pornography you would end up in prison because pornography is illegal". In 2008, Northern & Shell reported a turnover of £483.9 million.
Litigation began at the High Court on 6 July 2009 over claims in journalist Tom Bower's joint biography of Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel, Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, that Desmond had made a "humiliating climbdown" over an Express story at the end of 2002 on the state of Lord Black's finances, which it was alleged Desmond had ordered to be written.
This claim of a weakening of Desmond's "super-tough" reputation as a businessman was viewed as defamation by Desmond. Bower denied libel on the grounds of the story being "substantially true". The following day, the presiding judge The Hon. Mr Justice Eady, discharged the jury as "fundamental" evidence and legal submissions had emerged. The new jury later found in favour of Bower.
In July 2010, Desmond bought the UK terrestrial-television channel Channel 5, which was losing money, from the German group RTL, for £103.5 million. "Never before", wrote Tom Bower in The Guardian at the time, "has a government regulator (Ofcom) lowered the threshold for the suitability of the prospective owner of a TV channel enough for someone like Desmond to control a potentially lucrative franchise."
The new owner immediately proceeded to cut costs, starting with the dismissal of seven of Channel 5's nine directors, beginning a drive to eliminate "£20m of yearly expenses". The stated plan included the dismissal of up to 80 of the network's 300 employees.
In the year before Desmond acquired Channel 5 it had made a total loss of EUR41m (£37m), or a EUR9m loss at an operating level under its previous owner. Despite specific cost cutting, Desmond made significant investments in Channel 5 content, significantly increasing the programming budget. In the first full year of Desmond's ownership of Channel 5, the broadcaster saw a 28% surge in revenue - the biggest TV advertising haul in the broadcaster's 14-year history - "thanks to factors including the arrival of Big Brother and the return of a major media buying contract with Aegis". He sold Channel 5 to Viacom for £463m in May 2014.
By December 2010, the privately owned publishing venture employed more than 2,000 people internationally, according to Desmond. Northern & Shell's business interests in pornography finally ended in April 2016 when the Portland Television subsidiary, which broadcasts Television X and the Red Hot channels, was sold for under £1 million in a management buyout.
In 2003, Desmond and Roger Daltrey formed the RD Crusaders, a rock group featuring Desmond on drums, to raise money for charitable causes. Since its inception, the group has raised around £14 million via a series of fundraising concerts for charities including Marie Curie, the Teenage Cancer Trust, Norwood Child Care and the Evelina Children's Hospital. As well as Daltrey and Desmond, the line-up occasionally includes Robert Plant, Lulu, Steve Harley, guitarists Russ Ballard (of Argent) and Rick Wills (of Foreigner and Bad Company), keyboardist Steve Smith and organist Zoot Money.
Desmond, an active supporter of children's charities, became president of Norwood in 2006. Norwood is a leading UK Jewish charity, supporting vulnerable children, families and people with learning disabilities. He also ensured the attachment of his name to a children's centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital, by contributing £2.5m to the £15m project. The centre is the world's largest specialist paediatric eye clinic, a centre treating more than 25,000 children a year. The centre was officially inaugurated in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II.
In December 2014, during the run up the 2015 general election, Desmond was reported to have agreed to donate £300,000 to the UK Independence Party. There was speculation at the time that a further donation could follow, and in April 2015 it was announced that he had given an additional £1 million to the party.
Desmond's company, Northern and Shell, launched the Health Lottery in October 2011 of which around 20% of turnover goes to charity. The grants, distributed by the People's Health Trust (PHT), help many good causes and the elderly in local communities across the UK. By March 2018, The Health Lottery has raised nearly £100m for charities around the United Kingdom . It supports local health causes throughout England, Scotland and Wales. The Health Lottery was to return 20.34p per £1 lottery ticket to good causes, which was compared unfavourably with the National Lottery donating 28p per £1 ticket. Sir Stephen Bubb, then Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, accused Desmond of "profiteering on the back of charities". However, The Health Lottery's public accounts confirm that, as of 2017, the company had not made a profit since inception. In December 2017, Sir Henry Bellingham, MP, North West Norfolk, led a debate in Westminster Hall with members of Parliament representing 5 parties from across the United Kingdom on the 'Future of Society Lotteries, the Health Lottery and limits on prize values'. The debate concluded that the much-needed changes to the prize limits of these lotteries - to £1m - would receive widespread support - not just from the Government benches but from the entire House - if they were to be made by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Desmond and Janet Robertson were married for 27 years; the couple have a son, Robert. In October 2010, Janet filed for divorce on the grounds of "unreasonable behaviour" after Desmond impregnated his mistress Joy Canfield  and was granted a decree nisi from the court. He married Canfield, a former manager for British Airways, in 2012. The couple have two children; daughter Angel Millie (born 2011) and a son, Valentine (born 2015).
The tycoon's autobiography, The Real Deal: The Autobiography of Britain's Most Controversial Media Mogul, was published in June 2015 by Random House. It was ghost-written by Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend. He also provided his voice for the audiobook version. The autobiography received a five-star review in the Desmond-owned Daily Express.