There is a love affair between business leaders and financial journalists that flatters the deal-makers, turns the wheels of the public relations mills and feeds the appetite of investors for 'inside information'. If things go wrong, the figures will see off the losers. In the meantime, the relationship is largely one of inside tips in return for glowing profiles. Many reputations are made - and few are rocked.
There is, however, an anonymous and somewhat sinister character in this symbiotic scene who is writing his own script. It appears fortnightly in the magazine Private Eye under the byline 'Slicker' and it has an audience all its own.
The column, In The City, is the work of one man but it is read at every level in the City of London. It is a must-read for those who police the markets - the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange, the Securities & Exchange Commission in Washington. It is read in City coffee shops and in executive dining rooms, where the movers and shakers either laugh or cringe, depending on who Slicker is roasting.
The column has become an institution used today by many City professionals to pick up on gossip and to help them separate the good from the bad. Slicker has been uncannily accurate and, while often sued, has never lost a judgment, although there have been some out-of-court settlements.
So who is Slicker? The byline masks the identity of Michael Gillard, a native of Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and a graduate of the London School of Economics. He is a man who prefers to work in the shadows, without fanfare. Gillard has worked at Private Eye for more than 30 years and for a generation of business journalists has become a figure of heroic proportions. He is also a man of great secrecy - Private Eye doesn't even have a home address or home telephone number for him.
I have known Gillard for many years and before starting this piece I rang him at the office to see what level of cooperation I might be afforded. This was his reply: 'There are a great many misunderstandings about how, why and with whom I operate. I believe in freedom of expression, so I will not seek to stop you doing it, but I am not interested in promoting myself under any circumstances.'
I know what he means about misunderstandings. Some years ago I had a colourful City contact who did a rather hasty bunk to Monaco, under circumstances in which the authorities had been taking a keen interest. Gillard quickly published a nod-and-a-wink piece about his departure. Now, rumours had made the rounds in certain circles but, as far as I knew, only I had been told the definitive story of the quick exit. A couple of weeks later I had a call from said felon, who screamed down the phone: 'I've seen your handiwork in that shitty little magazine.' And that, thanks to Gillard, was the end of a useful source of information for me. When Gillard was told the story, he laughed like a drain. He, of course, had obtained his information through his own mysterious channels.
But a share-dealing spiv in Monaco is the very least of the scalps that Gillard has taken. The litany of City heads that have rolled at Slicker's feet reads like a list of the iffy, the bad and the ugly who have stalked the Square Mile. From the disgraced former home secretary Reginald Maudling to pension plundering Robert Maxwell, it has been Gillard who raised the first cry.
Slicker was on to the case of the 'Turkish Delight' and his Polly Peck empire long before Nadir was arrested and charged by the Serious Fraud Office in 1990. He cast doubt on the fantastic riches that the company was said to be producing through an array of diversified activities and famously discovered that a water-bottling plant in Turkey that was supposedly in full production had not even been built. The City had chosen to believe the fairy tale and when Polly Peck spectacularly went bust in 1990, the recriminations around the banking and financial community were huge.
Most crooks that run public companies bamboozle shareholders with self-promotion and bits of glossy paper. They assume no one will check the facts as presented. Generally they are right. Small investors and even City professionals seldom check. This is Gillard's great strength. He insists on going back to the source material. That can mean days of digging round at Companies House, painstakingly viewing microfiche files to unravel the true story. He may not always nail a baddy but often sounds a timely alarm.
Take the case of Philip Green, a self-styled retail entrepreneur who ran a chain of quoted discount stores under the Amber Day umbrella. Gillard dogged Green for months in the early '90s as a man mainly interested in boosting his share price. Slicker's pursuit finally did for Green's standing in the City.
The second secret weapon in the Gillard armoury is a phalanx of peerless contacts. People in high places who have a sense of justice will talk to Slicker because they know he is dogged in pursuit and believe him to be incorruptible. He will not let them down.
PR man Brian Basham has known Gillard since the early '60s when they both worked at the City Press. He believes Gillard is the finest investigative journalist of his generation. 'If you write a nasty profile of Michael, I will kill you,' said Basham. I got the feeling he was only half-joking.
While the Basham connection is enduring, it is also baffling - in that Basham for a long time acted as a PR adviser to Mohamed Al Fayed at the same time that Gillard was writing about the Harrods boss in the most scathing terms. I asked Basham if he had ever fallen out with Gillard. 'I never have, because I just always assume that I am wrong and he is right and I leave it at that,' he said.
Gillard engenders loyalty on a grand scale. Martin Tomkinson, who worked with him for 10 years at Private Eye, says: 'You've got to remember that when Michael started writing Slicker, he was rowing a boat alone. Insider dealing wasn't illegal then. He taught a whole generation of financial journalists to be far more sceptical.'
Parallel to his work at Private Eye, Gillard's career was moving ahead nicely until the early 1970s, when he found himself working on the City desk of the Express. It was not a happy experience. In August 1972 he wrote a devastating indictment of Anton Rupert, head of Rothmans, the tobacco conglomerate, over his links to and cash backing for the ruling Nationalist party in South Africa. This was at a time when Rupert was trying to portray himself in the media as a forward-looking liberal.
Unfortunately for Gillard, the proprietor of the Express at the time, Sir Max Aitken, was a friend of Sir Derek Pritchard, who ran Rupert's UK operations. Writs were issued but Gillard stood firm. Then in November of that year, the Express published an apology to Rupert over the story - even though it was provably true. Gillard left the Express - but pounds 10,000 the richer. He got his own back by attacking Rupert in the pages of Private Eye, where he got away with a lot more than he could have done in the Express.
After that episode, Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye at the time, got Gillard a job on World in Action, then Granada TV's flagship investigative programme. Ingrams says of Gillard: 'He's a terrific mystery man. Even people who've known him for years don't know anything about him. I've never had a home telephone number for him and I've never met his wife. But he has been fantastically loyal to me and Private Eye.'
When Gillard worked on World in Action he was just as obsessive about secrecy. He had been allotted a shoebox of an office, which he used to lock and bolt every night. It was the scene for some hilarity when the then Granada boss Sir Dennis Forman made an inspection tour, which ended with Forman banging on the door demanding that it should be opened.
Since the early 1970s, Private Eye has been one of the few places you can get hold of Gillard. His habits are eccentric, to say the least. Long-time Eye contributor Francis Wheen explains: 'Michael will usually spend the latter part of the day in Soho and return to the Eye late in the evening. He will go into the editor's office to watch the boxing (which he is potty about) on Sky, then go to the top of the building into his office - which is always locked and bolted. He is obsessively secretive.'
Christopher Silvester, another Eye contributor and the Brutus diarist on the Express, says Gillard looks more like a villain than his most disreputable targets. 'He used to have a penchant for leather car-coats and dark glasses, which, with his floppy Mandarin moustache, made him look like something out of an episode of The Sweeney. He really was very sinister.'
Gillard's and Private Eye's most famous feud was with Sir James Goldsmith, who filed 37 writs against the magazine and its distributors in response to a barrage of attacks on the tycoon's business tactics. Goldsmith's retaliatory fervor may have contributed to Gillard's guarded and secretive demeanor. Ingrams recalls: 'At the time, Goldsmith was desperate to find out who penned the Slicker column, so he had Gillard followed by private detectives, and had his children followed, too.'
Basham concurs: 'Although Michael was secretive before, it really accelerated during the Goldsmith case because Goldsmith wanted to destroy him and went to great lengths to intimidate him.'
Gillard's range of contacts is far-reaching and not at all obvious. For example, there is a northern industrialist with strong Tory sympathies who is regularly duffed up in the Slicker column by Gillard, much to his annoyance. What he didn't know is that a good deal of the stories used to come from his own sister.
The present Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop, has no idea who Gillard's contacts are, but says his record of accuracy is so good that he doesn't ask questions. 'Michael is always very bullish. He is very serious about being right. Normally when I receive a letter of complaint, I think: 'Oh no, we've screwed up. I'd better publish this.' But Michael always wants to fight it. Uniquely among Eye contributors, he has gone to court and won a libel action for us in the case of Dunn versus Pressdram - although sadly that was before my time.'
The last word on Slicker should be left to Gillard himself. It comes from the only time I know of that he has talked publicly about his work - in Patrick Marnham's 1982 book The Private Eye Story. 'My strength is in detail - a crushing weight of detail. If there are that many facts, it must be true.
'And there is no concession made to the layman. The column is aimed at professional readers. Others can understand it. It is not written in jargon. By writing it in City terms, it makes it more of a column for insiders. This is a further encouragement to influential readers.'
1972: Reginald Maudling - The former Home Secretary resigned from government after Slicker exposed his connections with corrupt architect John Poulson.
1972: Slater Walker - After challenging the view of the City and the financial pages of wonder firm Slater Walker, Slicker was vindicated when the Bank of England had to bail out the company.
1976: Sir James Goldsmith - In pointing out how Goldsmith invariably came out a winner in his complex dealings and cross-holdings, while smaller shareholders lost out, Slicker invited Private Eye's most famous libel battle.
1987: Ernest Saunders - While many commentators tip-toed round the allegations of the Guinness share-propping scandal, Slicker hounded Saunders as a guilty man. Saunders and several others went to prison in 1987.
1981-82: Lloyd's of London - Slicker exposed the scandal of Lloyd's low-risk/high-risk syndicates and ran a fugitive Peter Cameron-Webb to ground in the US.
1989: Peter Clowes - Slicker wrote about potential fraud at Barlow Clowes, which was later exposed, leading to the imprisonment of the investment conman.
1990: Asil Nadir - Remains a fugitive since the collapse of his Polly Peck multinational.
1992-93: Philip Green - In analysing the share trades of the Amber Day boss and commenting on his associations, Slicker paved the way for Green's exit from the pounds 100 million quoted retailer.
2000: Jonathan Guinness - The former Guinness director was debarred last month by the DTI. Slicker had already looked at the collapse of connected company Trustor.
2000: Mirror City Slickers - A recent instance of Slicker's campaign against City insider dealing was his coverage of the Mirror tipsters' activities. Anil Bhoyrul and James Hipwell fell from grace when they were accused of talking up companies in their column in which they had invested.