Just a Mo, there’s radio silence

Following Mohamed Al-Fayed’s failure to start a Sunday newspaper, the Harrods boss tried to get into radio … and ended up with Punch, writes ALAN FRAME

Life working for Mohamed Al-Fayed was never dull. A mix of the unpredictable, the surreal and high-wire balancing act. After the thrill of producing the dummy edition for a new (sadly stillborn) mid-market Sunday newspaper, it was back to the drawing board for Liberty Media, as the publishing arm of Harrods Holdings was known. 

We had tried to buy the Today newspaper from Rupert Murdoch only to be thwarted at the last moment; and then Fayed himself had decided – understandably — that launching a new product against the wealthy and combative Associated was, financially, too risky. Safer sticking to selling top-priced goods to dowagers, tourists and ladies in burkhas.

So we turned our attention to the London Broadcasting Company, LBC, at the time owned by a consortium of companies including DMGT, GWR media and Reuters. 

The good news was that those three were willing to talk to us. By great fortune I managed to secure the services of a founder of Crown Communications, former owner of LBC, who knew where all the bodies were buried. He was a brilliant consultant. 

Negotiations followed a similar pattern to the unsuccessful purchase of Today; steady progress, very long nights, the feeling we were almost there … and then the big brush-off. 

This time it wasn’t Murdoch being mercurial. We had agreed terms with the consortium whose main man was the finance director of Reuters. Then it was off to the Radio Authority for the formal transfer of the broadcasting licence. We were met by an urbane, clubbable type who assured us that the issue would be considered at its next meeting in Edinburgh in two weeks. We should, he said, regard that as a formality.

A fortnight later our calls to the Reuters man were not returned. Where the dialogue had been regular and friendly, there was silence. Finally, we were told that the deal was off which we interpreted as the Radio Authority deeming that Mohamed was not a fit person to own a radio station. They may have been right which is why we had put in place safeguards that would have guaranteed the independence of LBC, rather like those protecting The Times from Murdoch’s interference. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that has worked…

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And so to Punch. The magazine had long been consigned to waiting rooms and even there remained mostly unread. More than 150 years after its foundation, its owners, United News and Media, decided its race was run. And for once I couldn’t fault the decision of United’s chairman, our old friend David Stevens (step forward Lord Stevens of Ludgate, celebrated toe sucker and latterly UKIP peer.) 

Mohamed had other ideas however. And this time he was taking no chances of rejection … the most elaborate and complicated maze of companies across the globe were formed to hide the true identity of the would-be buyer. Liechtenstein, Monaco, Cayman and all the other usual suspects. In fact companies were incorporated in all the sunny places for shady people. 

Next, having created this tangle of LTDs, PLCs and LLPs we had to find someone who would pose as the buyer. We found two, a delightful pair of pals who thought this would be a jolly jape. I’m being uncharacteristically discreet by not naming them, suffice to say we christened them Charters and Caldicott, the two cricket-obsessed silly asses from The Lady Vanishes. 

One was a distinguished former Fleet Street editor, the other an art and antiques dealer. Lots of longish hair and silk hankies spilling out of the breast pocket; looking just the part of a couple who wanted to revive Punch as an arts and cartoons specialist publication.

In the event, the labyrinth of companies was not needed and Charters and Caldicott could have posed as Laurel and Hardy for all the future Little Lord cared. United got £500,000 for a dead duck and Mohamed got the one thing of value which came with the deceased bird, the famous Punch Table on to whose surface are carved the names and initials of an eclectic assortment from Dickens and Thackeray to Princes Philip and Charles.

It was at this point I made my excuses and left; Punch had been closed for a good reason and the satire market was by then dominated by Private Eye, one of whose prime targets was Mohamed. So Punch was re-invented as a (very) poor man’s Eye with the new proprietor having a pop at enemies, real and perceived. After a revolving door sequence of editors, starting with Peter McKay, Punch closed, this time for good, in 2002 after barely six years. 

In that time it lost in the region of £16m, which for those of you who read my account of the efforts to start a new Sunday paper, would have gone a long way towards its budget.  

 

© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre