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Goodbye Phoney Pharaoh
This Green and Strangely Pleasant Land - In memoriam
I never met the Mohamed Al Fayed, the flamboyant Egyptian born tycoon who died recently, but he cast an enormous shadow over my life as a journalist working at The Observer’s business section in the 1980s.
Once an allay of Tiny Rowland, Fayed became the bitterest of his (many) enemies. These two outsiders were notably dodgy and had massive egos. When they locked horns in a struggle, they were, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, very much like the ‘unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible’.
Tiny was, of course, exceptionally tall, with a plumy British accent concealing his German birth and years spent in Southern Rhodesia. Al Fayed added the Al to his family name to suggest a vaguely aristocratic background that he did not possess. Ultimately he became more famous for being the father of Dodi who died alongside Diana, the Princess of Wales in Paris.
He and Tiny had rubbed along as business allies until they had an explosive falling out over the acquisition of the department store chain, House of Fraser. Tiny, who was barred by the government from buying Fraser, had parked his shares with Fayed who he expected would assist him in securing a backdoor deal. Instead ‘The Phoney Pharoh’, as he became known in The Observer, gobbled up the retailer for himself.
So far, so bad. However at the same time that the Department of Trade and Industry blocked Tiny’s plans for Fraser, it gave him the go ahead to buy The Observer. What followed was to tarnish the paper’s reputation in a number of ways.
Donald Trelford, the editor, was persuaded by Tiny to appoint Melvin Markus, then number three on the city desk of The Sunday Telegraph, as editor of the business section. In his wake came two attack dog reporters (Michael Gillard and Stella Shamoon) and a renewed business section which increasingly assumed the role of plugging Tiny’s controversial Lonrho company and, more importantly he used it for vilifying enemies. Enemy Number One was the Phoney Pharoh.
Melvin, who had got to know Tiny and was regarded as a firm ally, was enthusiastic in the pursuit of Fayed. A nadir was reached with the production of a special edition of the paper, given away free. It contained the leaked details of a highly damaging DTI investigation into Fayed’s affairs. That these affairs were nefarious is hardly in question but there was definitely some concern over how The Observer had become a Tiny mouthpiece.
Somehow, in the middle of this turmoil, I became the Deputy Business Editor, with clear instructions to stay clear of all Tiny business and focus on the other stuff. I realised the extent to which I was not to be trusted in dealings with the paper’s owner on a Friday night when I was standing in for Melvin. His phone rang and the unmistakable voice of Mr Rowland came on the line. He asked, in his customarily courteous way, to speak to ‘Mr Markus’. I said he was not there but that I was editing the section that week and wondered whether I could assist. The caller, who did not identify himself, then asked to speak to Ms Shamoon. I later discovered that the Friday night phone call was a regular event and carried with it ‘suggestions’ of what might appear in the next edition of the paper.
The business section was the epicentre of the Tiny meddling. At this point it should be explained that business coverage had not traditionally been one of The Observer’s more obvious strengths and that those of us labouring in the vulgar realms of commerce were pretty much looked down upon by the rather grander people who filled the rest of the paper, some of them very grand indeed.
Nonetheless we had our moments and those outside the Tiny loop were very uncomfortable over what was happening. At one point, after one of the more execrable instances of Tiny intervention, I bitterly complained to the editor who informed me that ‘the business section is the price we pay for the rest of the paper’.
Donald Trelford’s point was that the paper was losing money and that Tiny had willingly kept it afloat. What he did not say was that few other people on the paper cared about what happened in the business section and he suspected that this indifference was shared by readers.
Donald was no fool, and in his biography (Shouting in the Street, Biteback Publishing) he eloquently explains why Tiny did a great deal for The Observer while implausibly explaining away the problems. The fact however remains that the poison which started in the business section quickly permeated the paper as a whole.
The brutal truth about newspapers is that they tend not to be owned by nice people. The roll call of Murdoch, Maxwell and the Fascist supporting Harmsworth family is testimony to this assertion. Indeed, later in life I came to an edit a newspaper in Hong Kong whose owners would be hard pressed to pass any test of probity.
So, let it not be said that Tiny Rowland was exceptional in this regard because. By and large newspaper ownership attracts people with a great deal of money and a great enthusiasm for using their papers for their own purposes.
As for the recently deceased Mohamed Fayed, he would have fitted into this group rather nicely.
Idiot of the Week
Frankly it’s been tough to single out a single person who has most mishandled the collapsing schools debacle but ultimately this week’s accolade must go to the Gillian Keegan, the education minister who denies that any of this is her fault, even though her job title suggests otherwise.