Charity makes strange bedfellows

March 2017 - Rich benefactors are often welcomed with open arms by charities and the Canal & River Trust is no exception – but bringing in cash for a good cause can mean getting into bed with some strange bedfellows, as Peter Underwood reports.

A junior government minister and keen canoeist Andrew Percy, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, joined Richard Parry, Chief Executive of the Canal & River Trust, in Goole to launch England’s first coast-to-coast canoe trail.

The Desmond Family Canoe Trail will stretch 162 miles to connect Goole to Merseyside along the Canal & River Trust’s Leeds & Liverpool Canal and Aire & Calder Navigation.

The trail is named after newspaper proprietor Richard Desmond, who donated £1.3m to the project, and has the support of British Canoeing and Canoe England.

Nearly 2,000 young volunteers (15-25 years-old), from some of England's most deprived communities are helping to create the UK’s first ever coast-to-coast canoe trail. The volunteers are also helping to design the trail, organise and run a year-round programme of activities for their local community, as well as improving the environment along the trail, by planting new community gardens and habitats.

All of which is admirable. However some people may be slightly uncomfortable with the association with Richard Desmond, a billionaire businessman who has a somewhat chequered history.

In 1982, his publishing company, Northern & Shell began to publish the UK edition of Penthouse, and the company soon moved on to publishing a range of adult titles, including Asian Babes.

Northern & Shell also publishes the celebrity OK! magazine now the largest weekly magazine in the world, with 23 separate editions.

Claims of dealings with the New York mafia in the early 1990s emerged in a May 2001 in article by John Sweeny in The Observer newspaper. There were various other allegations both in the UK and America and 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.

His ownership of the Daily Express has also brought controversy and, in August 2001, the National Union of Journalists' chapel (union branch) at the Express and Star condemned Desmond for the newspaper's "hysterical and racist" campaign against asylum seekers.

Desmond is often referred to as "Dirty Des" in the Private Eye magazine due to his company Northern & Shell formerly owning a number of pornographic magazines and television channels.

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 WH Smith and Freeview, saying that: "If it was pornography you would end up in prison because pornography is illegal".

In July 2010, Desmond bought the UK terrestrial-television channel Channel 5, "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."

He sold Channel 5 to Viacom for £463m in May 2014. Northern & Shell's business interests in TV sex channels 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.

Desmond's political alliances have changed too. In December 2014, during the run up the 2015 general election, Desmond was reported to have agreed to donate £300,000 to UKIP, and in April 2015 it was announced that he had given an additional £1 million to the party.

Nevertheless a tie-up between C&RT and Richard Desmond may prove financially beneficial.

Desmond launched The Health Lottery in 2011 and, so far, more than £75 million has been raised for over 1000 community health charities and projects.

In 2003, Desmond and The Who's Roger Daltrey formed the RD Crusaders, a rock group featuring Desmond on drums, to raise money for charitable causes.

Since then 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.

Desmond 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, treating more than 25,000 children a year.

Whatever his history, charitable patronage now seems to be the name of the game for Richard Desmond.

Photos: (1st) Andrew Percy, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse,and Richard Parry, Chief Executive of the Canal & River Trust, in Goole, (2nd) Canoeist at the Goole ceremony, (3rd) Richard Desmond with former Chancellor and now Evening Standard Newspaper Editor George Osborne, (4th) Richard Desmond.

User login