He may not have the charm and manners of other media owners – the word suave is not one that comes to mind in connection with him. But in terms of sheer, bruising power, he has it in spades.
I experienced it first hand when he bought the Express titles. I was deputy to the editor, Rosie Boycott.
We knew the papers were being sold but, in our naïve, idealistic way, we supposed that Lord Hollick, the Labour-voting proprietor, would sell them to someone similarly minded.
Imagine our shock then when the buyer turned out to be Desmond, until then best known as a publisher of adult magazines (you might call them porn, he insists on calling them "adult" – I’ve never been sure of the distinction).
Desmond was unlike any newspaper magnate we’d ever experienced. First, there was the temper and the language. I remember the day he discovered we had a "gentleman’s agreement" with Tony O’Reilly not to compete against him in Ireland. Take this down, he ordered a minion: "Dear Mr F*cking Baked Bean, I understand we have a gentleman’s agreement with you. You need to know something: I am no f*cking gentleman. Therefore I do not do gentleman’s agreements."
'There was the temper and the language, the throwing of objects – fists, filing cabinets and chairs'
Second, the throwing of objects – fists, filing cabinets and chairs. All excused by his loyal underlings on the grounds it showed how much he cared for the business.
Third, the idiosyncratic management style. A pleasing answer in a meeting, for instance, would be met by the "ding" of a hotel reception bell. A bad reply would be greeted with the pressing of an air horn, or worse.
In truth, though, there was something entertaining about all of the above. He was not as self-aggrandising in public or in private as Robert Maxwell, say. In person, he was friendly and charming, and interested.
And he was a consummate businessman. His motivation was pure profit. The phrase "making the assets sweat" did not do justice to Desmond – he worked them until they could take no more, begging for mercy.
One day, he stopped all payments going out of the building – and I mean all, including taxis, flowers, stationery, everything. We had a studio booked for a fashion shoot but a Desmond acolyte said: "Send the girls to our own studio in Docklands." Off they went, only to discover they were decked out in red velvet and had TV screens showing people having sex.
Desmond is different. I was once late for lunch with him. By the time I’d arrived, he had covered the napkin with calculations written in Biro. He had worked out the number of covers, average menu price, probable staff numbers and their costs, and likely rent. His conclusion? The place was losing money. He was right, of course.
Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard