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Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer, managing director of Prism Consult and past editor of Gay News, died late last year. David Westgarth remembers him.

By David Westgarth

Robert Palmer
Robert Palmer.

We are sad to report that Robert Palmer died in November 2022 of a heart attack after recent surgery for cancer, complicated by the presence of Parkinson’s disease.

Robert set up Prism Consult in 1999 in the M&A space to advise privately owned SMEs with media interests. The business continues although Robert is greatly missed.

Born in 1948 to a clerical family in Oxfordshire, Robert quickly established a reputation for resolution. From age five it was clear that, if he set out to do something, it got done.

At Bristol University in the 1960s, Robert channelled his desire to get things done into the cause of gay rights. He was a charming man, but the silk covered steel. Those qualities gave him a leadership role in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the precursor of today’s Stonewall: he appeared on television, spoke on the radio, wrote articles, and served from 1976 to 1980 as treasurer, then chairman. Robert always had an exceptional networking talent, developing an extraordinary contacts database which spanned university friends, associates of St Paul’s Cathedral, where he had been a chorister, MPs and media figures whom he lobbied for gay rights, everyone who was anyone in publishing and events. The early fruit of that talent was fabulous parties: Quentin Crisp came to dinner at Robert’s Little Venice apartment, Kenneth Williams held court, and the writer Christopher Isherwood entranced an eager young audience, sitting on the floor wearing bright red socks.

“He was a charming man, but the silk covered steel.”

In 1982, he took over the publication of Gay News, the flagship paper for gay rights, in order to save it from liquidation after it lost a notorious blasphemy case to Mary Whitehouse. (She had objected to its publication of a poem in which a Roman centurion described having sex with Christ after the crucifixion.) Robert’s attempt to save Gay News foundered, however, because the deal was based on a self-financing earn-out and key staff saw that as exploitation, so they resigned and the title was absorbed by a rival. It was a turning point in Robert’s life. For the first time, his instinctive resolution to get something done conflicted with his idealism: he shared the aim of the progressive staff members but, lacking capital, his necessary solution blew up the project.

Robert then reinvented himself. After briefly licking his wounds as a society magazine publisher among the demi-monde of Marbella, he took himself off for three years to London Business School and obtained a Masters with Honours in Business Studies. Apart from the grounding in finance, strategy, and marketing, he developed an eye for the under-appreciated detail that could shift the overall value of a proposition. He emerged from LBS with drive, a sociable disposition that underpinned those impressive networking skills, and the equipment of a highly rated financial analyst. He went to work for Bertelsmann, in advertising, and marketing, gaining real world experience in the media sector; in 1999 he set up Prism Consult.

Prism addressed a gap in the market but also embodied a degree of idealism. In the first part of his career, Robert helped to give a voice to interests under-represented in the political mainstream of the time; in the commercial arena he offered support to private media businesses sometimes well beyond the remit of established London consultancies.

With the start-up of Prism, Robert professionalised his databases and re-focused them on media – established and start-up businesses, executives, and owners. In this world, Robert was known for his decency, skills, and persistence and Prism, the consultancy that he founded and developed with many associates, for its strong results – whether dealing with giants like Informa, a loved family business, or start-ups.

In his private life, the touch of glamour that had always hung around Robert never entirely left him. In 2000, on the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s death, Robert and his partner, novelist Alan Clark, whom he had met in 1976, occupied the room at L’Hotel in St Germain des Pres in which Wilde died and assembled a glittering coterie of friends, singers, and actors to celebrate Wilde’s life in speech and song – described by the Daily Mail as ‘a group of Exquisites’.

Robert Palmer will be long remembered for helping LGBTQ people to flourish and for his personable contribution to helping Prism’s clients to flourish also.