The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, a book review by Alasdair Buchan
In Robert Maxwell’s mind, I imagine he saw himself as an inspirational leader of men, a business genius, admired and only disliked by fools and knaves.
In fact, of course, he was an ogre, a crook, a bully, a liar, a self-made man and a self-made up man, bombastic, a thief on a monumental scale, quite possibly a murderer, a billionaire (for a short time), a war hero, a user and abuser of his fellow man, unfaithful to his wife and self-delusional. In other words, the publisher Robert Maxwell was a monster and not to be trusted. (It goes without saying that if the author of this comprehensive catalogue of crime and misdemeanours had written the book when Maxwell was alive, he would have been assaulted from all sides by very, very expensive lawyers. How they must miss him!)
Several books about Maxwell have been written but none as comprehensive as this title, and so much of this tale is already well known. Where Preston succeeds now is in his forensic presentation of some old and many new details, expertly written with clarity and with full attribution. Even though I was familiar with most of Maxwell’s villainy – after all, included in the £763million missing from his safe on the tenth floor of the Daily Mirror building was my pension – there were still revelations that were jaw-droppingly new to me.
Not least of these is the obsession Maxwell had with his rival Rupert Murdoch. Many witnesses noticed how much Maxwell talked admiringly of his rival and sought out opportunities to befriend him. Whenever Maxwell concluded a successful deal, his first call was to ‘Rupert’ to let him know of his success. Murdoch responded each time by simply thanking him “for his courtesy” and got on with his life.
When Murdoch did find something useful in these calls, he moved quickly. For example, when Maxwell had agreed a deal to buy Today newspaper from Eddie Shah and his financial backers, Lonrho, his call to Murdoch had a throwaway line that the paperwork for the agreed deal had not yet been signed.
Murdoch moved with cobra-like speed. He had long wanted a paper to sit between his working-class Sun and his upper-class Times. He was in Colorado, called his UK executives and boarded a plane for London. By the time he landed, his staff had ascertained that Maxwell had offered £10million and agreed to take on the paper’s debt of £30million. Murdoch offered £38million in cash and sealed the deal. When he found out, Maxwell referred to his rival as “that Australian bastard.”
Sir Harry Evans, editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times later said: “Maxwell thought he’d entered the ring with another boxer. In fact, he’d entered the ring with a ju-jitsu artist who also happened to be carrying a stiletto.” And, after Maxwell’s death, Murdoch broke his rule of not commenting on Maxwell to say: “You’d switch on the TV … and there would be Maxwell in his dark suit and bow-tie telling you about his global communications company. It was all bullshit. I never spoke about him, but he couldn’t stop talking about me. Whatever we did he wanted to do it too. Also, I could see that he was ruining everything he touched. He was a total buffoon really.” Ouch.
That ‘do it too’ cost Maxwell dearly again and again. Murdoch bought the New York Post, Maxwell decided to buy the ailing New York Daily News. Under his leadership the paper’s circulation dropped from 1.2million to 750,000; the projected annual revenue Maxwell had used to set the buying price had dropped by US$100,000,000. Even by Maxwell’s standards that was a lot of zeroes. Four weeks after his death the, now bankrupt, Daily News closed.
And so to the death. Preston doesn’t come down specifically to a sole cause: suicide, murder, accident etc. He sets out all the possibilities based on the two autopsies and, in my view, favoured accident most.
As has been well-recorded, the death was quickly followed by the denouement. The safe was opened, a search of the building uncovered the bugs he had placed in his executives’ offices. The adulatory Mirror front page the day after his death was quickly followed a few days later by the stunning headline: MILLIONS MISSING FROM MIRROR. The following day the Evening Standard was more brutal: MAXWELL EMPIRE COLLAPSES.