LONDON - Max Clifford once was one of the most powerful men in British newspapers, although he never worked in a newsroom. The “King of Spin” celebrity publicist represented Frank Sinatra, O.J. Simpson, Marlon Brando and, until this week, The X Factor judge Simon Cowell.
He allegedly had the power to bring down government ministers by placing stories in tabloids. He saved careers by keeping celebrities’ secrets from spilling into print, and represented powerful men’s mistresses looking to sell details of their personal lives to the same titles.
Clifford was untouchable. Or so it seemed.
This week the 71-year-old was convicted of eight counts of indecent assault, which related to offenses against women aged 15 to 19 between 1977 and 1984, and was jailed for eight years on Friday.
His downfall likely represents the end of his career as the U.K.’s preeminent publicist, it also coincides with the emasculation of Britain's mighty tabloids.
The victim who tried to raise the alarm that eventually brought down Clifford was 17 when she was targeted in the 1980s. The woman, who has not been named publicly, says Clifford told her he could make her a star in order to coerce her into sex.
One day some 30 years later she plucked up the courage to call a newspaper to share her story.
“When I rang the paper, the man that I spoke to asked me what it was I ringing about, and I said I was attacked by Max Clifford,” the victim said in an interview. “And the journalist’s words were, ‘Let me stop you there, nobody will print anything about Max Clifford. He is untouchable.’”
Indeed, Danny Rogers, editor of PR Week magazine, told the BBC that Clifford was "without doubt the most powerful PR man in the country" in his heyday.
Her story eventually did come out, and helped bring about Clifford’s downfall.
The court painted a picture of him as a man who pressured and physically forced women into performing sexual acts in return for promises of meetings with celebrities or roles in films.
He was the first person to be prosecuted as part of the U.K.'s Operation Yewtree, a police probe that was launched following the widespread scandal of sex abuse centered around television personality Jimmy Savile.
Meanwhile, Britain’s tabloids are not the titans they once were. Clifford gave evidence during an inquiry into phone hacking -- illegally listening to cell phone messages for stories.
"It involved a tiny minority,” he told the inquiry. “It was a cancer which is now hopefully being cut out."
Clifford had reportedly accepted a $1.7 million payout from Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World to stop allegations against the tabloid editors from coming out.
Mirroring Clifford’s own fall, the scandal that he said included a tiny minority has ballooned into a criminal trial involving some of the most important people in newspapers: Murdoch’s former News of the World Editor Rebekah Brooks, and Andy Coulson, another former editor and ex-communications chief to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Well before phone hacking brought down the News of the World, and Clifford was convicted, Britain’s tabloids were in trouble.
In 2000, the paid circulations of the U.K.’s national daily and national Sunday newspapers were equivalent to about 60 percent of households. By 2013, the figures had fallen to about 30 percent, according to a study by U.K. PR firm 0Communications Management.
Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, the Mirror and the Daily Mail’s daily circulation have fallen but at a slower pace than more serious newspapers. And the Mail in particular is seeing huge success online. But in 2008 The Sun dipped below 3 million copies a day, and now sells around 2.5 million.
There are those who lament the decline of the British tabloid industry.
The mother of the murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, who was part of a News of the World campaign to name child sex abusers, told the phone hacking trial that the newspaper had campaigned for worthy causes.
“It’s easy to forget in these dark times the News of the World has often been a force for good and it has something to do with the people who worked on it,” she told jurors.
It’s ironic that Payne’s mother came to the paper’s defense, since she was in fact targeted by the phone hacking scandal. A phone she was gifted by Brooks, the News of the World editor at the time, was hacked.
But there was a darker side to the how the newspapers handled news and celebrity, and Clifford was at the heart of it.
As Paul Connex, a media commentator who worked for some of Britain's biggest newspapers during Clifford's heyday, said: "I think Max saw life as this sleazy, sexy circus, where he was the controlling ring-leader."