At work among the rich
PHILIP BERESFORD, veteran reporter responsible for the Sunday Times Rich List, told LFB's November branch meeting that the annual feature was feeding a popular "obsession with the rich".
When he started doing the list 26 years ago, "nobody knew about the rich or who they were. Now every time a multi-millionaire sneezes it's in the press. We are obsessed by them and our society is more unequal than it has ever been."
Philip first started trying to do a list of the richest people in Britain in the 1980s as a junior Sunday Telegraph reporter. "I made a list of about 220 people and started to phone them up. One was Robert Maxwell who said, 'put me down for a billion'. Another was the Duke of Devonshire - when I told him what we were doing he said he would have to have a word with the proprietor, Lord Hartwell. He did, and the paper dropped it.
"So I went to the Sunday Times and started doing it for them. The first was in 1989. Some people did complain. Murdoch told them to fuck off - but the Sunday Times didn't have the Telegraph's inhibition. The left complained as well; Socialist Worker said I was a lickspittle of Wall Street and the City of London."
Philip said the rich list was "one of the few areas where the super-rich can be held to account". In Britain wealth definitely leads to political influence. It is right in a democratic society that we should know who owns the means if production.
To be seriously rich, said Philips, requires about £20 million of assets outside housing; there are about 20,000 people in this category. How do we know who they are? "We read, read and read. I subscribe to lots of magazines and the Companies House database. I keep an eye on company accounts.
"Some people on the list co-operate... one bought me lunch to give me a copy of his tax returns. People want to be in it.
"After 26 rich lists I would say we are about 25 per cent of the way there. About another 25 per cent, we have nothing on them; and another 25 per cent are completely hidden. So there is a long way to go. Some should not really be on the list because they owe so much they should be on a poor list.
"I would love to do a 'secret rich list', of people I know are rich but can't prove it."
Why was Rupert Murdoch - super-rich owner of the Sunday Times - never in the list? Philip replied that he does not qualify because he is a US citizen. "Every year we are asked this and every year... we add a note saying that if he was eligible he would be at number N. In any case he is in the Forbes list in the USA."
Next year's list, the 27th, will be the last - at least with Philip's participation. But there will be others, perhaps as an online listicle. "The media love lists", he said.