Former Mirror man Ken Jenour’s daughter Sadie has been in touch to say that he is seriously ill in Northwick Park Hospital after a stroke. He is currently in a stable but serious condition, unable to walk or speak, and Sadie is asking for anyone who remembers him to post messages on his Facebook page so she can read them out to him – in the hope he understands. https://www.facebook.com/kj.ukmediaman
By BILL ROWNTREE, former Mirror Group photographer
I have my own unique and very personal memory of Prince Philip. I am probably the only photographer, certainly the only one I know, to get Prince Philip’s picture on a biscuit tin!
Fifty years ago it was the custom before a royal tour that special pictures were issued to mark the occasion. In 1969 the Queen asked that the pictures for her 1970 tour to New Zealand be taken by a New Zealand photographer, and I was asked by the NZ High Commission to do the job – a great honour.
Back then I used to tell people that the “best” Kiwi photographer in London was busy, so they asked me. I suspect, in fact, that at that time I was the only Kiwi photographer in London!
The tour in 1970 commemorated the 200th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage, and was also the first time Charles and Anne visited New Zealand, making it the first (royal) family tour. My pictures were a great success, although somewhat formal as was the style then for royal pictures.
In 1971 my wife and I were back in Auckland to see my parents. My Mum told me she had a surprise present for me, and gave me a Woolworths’ biscuit tin with one of my pictures displayed on the lid. Although the tin is a bit battered and worn now, it still has pride of place in our kitchen. I am as proud of my biscuit tin as I am of my Mirror photographic awards, and a double-page spread in “Life” magazine.
I suggested to the Mirror that this was a good memory of Prince Philip that involved the Mirror, but they seemed uninterested. However, the New Zealand Herald, where I began my newspaper career more than 60 years ago, liked it. Similarly the Otago Daily Times, the local newspaper for Invercargill (at the bottom of the South Island) where I was born.
Here are a couple of reminders, folks. The AMP’s annual general meeting in London and annual meeeting in Glasgow have had to be re-arranged once again, but there’s something extra special this year, as you’ll find out if you come along (members only)
AGM London: Sept 21 11.30am
Annual meeting Glasgow: Sept 28 11.30am
(We sincerely hope we won’t have to postpone yet again, but we have to add – pandemic permitting)
Venues and full arrangements will be confirmed in the upcoming issue of MIRROR PENSIONER, which should be coming through your letterbox around April 12. And it’s a cracker. Bigger! More pages! EXCLUSIVE TO AMP MEMBERS ONLY
“Tony Boram was devastated that he had failed to prevent Maxwell’s wholesale looting of the pension funds”
Robert Maxwell’s death was a huge international news story. The Mirror’s reaction changed from syrupy adoration of “the Man who Saved the Mirror” to condemnation once his massive frauds were discovered. While Ian Maxwell and his brother Kevin resigned from MGN and MCC, the fight began to save the pension fund their father had plundered. But many questions remained unanswered, the biggest of which was: “How was it possible for Maxwell to steal £426 million from the fund without anyone noticing?”
By Peter Thompson, former editor of the Sunday Mirror. © Peter Thompson 2021. Extracted from Cudlipp’s Circus by Peter Thompson, Kindle Edition
THE news that Robert Maxwell was missing reached Holborn Circus at 1.30 on the afternoon of 5 November, 1991. It was greeted on the editorial floor with cheers and shouts of joy from the beleaguered anti-Maxwell workforce. At 2.58 p.m. shares of MGN and MCC, both of which were in freefall, were suspended on the Stock Exchange. That evening Maxwell’s body was found in the Atlantic, floating face up, eyes wide open, 28 miles off Gran Canaria and 100 miles east of Tenerife. It was winched aboard a Super Puma helicopter and taken to the airport at Gran Canaria for a post-mortem examination.
Editorial director Charlie Wilson arranged a press conference at which a visibly shaken Kevin Maxwell uttered the first words about his father. “Love him or hate him,” he said, “he touched the lives of many millions of people.”
Indeed he had – and none more so than the staffs of his newspapers. A brief audit showed that under Maxwell’s stewardship the Daily Mirror’s circulation had fallen from 3.54 million to 2.87 million and its reputation as a trustworthy, crusading newspaper had been trashed. Overall, Mirror Group’s three main titles were down 2.4 million copies on their average monthly sales.
Maxwell had changed the editors of his three main titles no fewer than 16 times in seven years, thrashing around for some non-existent circulation-boosting formula and, with one exception, allowing no one time to settle into the job before replacing them. But this was no time for inconvenient truths. Richard Stott, the one exception, donned his tartan scarf (a gift from Rod Stewart) and filled sixteen pages of the Daily Mirror lauding the genius of his controversial proprietor.
There were tribute pieces by Anne Robinson (“He enriched many lives and mine was one”) and Joe Haines (“His death removes a colossus from the scene”). No fewer than 19 pictures showed Maxwell the multi-millionaire, Maxwell the football tycoon, Maxwell the soldier. According to the headlines, he was THE MAN WHO SAVED THE MIRROR; A GREAT BIG EXTRAORDINARY MAN; THE GIANT WITH A VISION; THE GREAT CHARMER. Maxwell would have loved it – it was his last ego trip.
The Maxwell Brothers would not have been happy had they been privy to Stott’s true feelings. “I felt no regret; indeed, my first reaction was an overwhelming sense of relief,” he wrote in his memoirs, Dogs and Lampposts. “I had beaten him, I had outlasted him… I never expected that.”
While the banks’ auditors and accountants checked the books, it was left to the Independent on Sunday to brand Maxwell “a liar, a cheat and a bully”. “His untruthfulness was not a matter of occasional slips,” the paper editorialised, “it was an instinct, a habit, and above all, a weapon.” Maxwell loved to claim he was a victim of Establishment snobbery, but his closest chums came from that same Establishment while the country’s biggest banks loaned him £billions. He supported totalitarian regimes and democratic ones, depending on his interests. Those who criticised him were plagued with lawsuits.
“Maxwell, above all, was a super-bully,” the paper continued. “And this carries the most important lesson for British public life. He did more than any other individual to pervert the British law of libel, which was evolved to defend innocent reputations, into a ruthless instrument of censorship, usable only by the very rich. He suppressed legitimately critical reporting with libel writs and injunctions against newspapers and unauthorised biographers.”
One of those biographies was Maxwell: A Portrait of Power (above) which I’d written with Tony Delano and which was published in February 1988. Maxwell issued 32 writs for libel against us but didn’t challenge this damning paragraph: “The Reed board had enemies within. A copy of the still-secret prospectus for the flotation of Mirror Group Holdings plc in 1984 was slipped to one of Maxwell’s advisers. Maxwell was only allowed to read it in the intermediary’s presence, but that was long enough for him to find out about the 15 per cent share limit and an even more crucial piece of information: the magnitude of the MGN pension fund. The fund was so flush with contributions and profits that Maxwell immediately saw that the leverage it could give him justified a much higher offer for the group.” Maxwell was using the MGN pension fund even before he had set foot in Holborn Circus.
Ironically, Maxwell’s lawyers had said of Portrait of Power: “The book was wholly destructive of Mr Maxwell’s character and reputation. In addition, the imputations made against Mr Maxwell’s integrity as a businessman will inevitably have led readers to suppose that the Plaintiff companies (MCC and MGN) conducted their business in a dishonest and disreputable manner.” Maxwell brought out the worst in everybody. Exposing him as a crook in Maxwell: A Portrait of Power was an act of contrition on my part for having worked for him, but it was also a warning to MGN about his dishonesty.
On 4 December the Mirror revealed that Maxwell had stolen millions from MGN’s treasuries. The following day the figure was put at £526 million, including £426 million from the pension funds of MGN, MCC and the market research group AGB. The extra £100 million had been filched from the MGN accounts. Ian Maxwell resigned as chairman of MGN and Kevin Maxwell quit as chairman and chief executive of MCC. Ernie Burrington, who took over from Ian Maxwell as chairman, described the frauds as “the increasingly desperate actions of a desperate man”.
Richard Stott performed a spectacular volte-face about the man he had praised so lavishly just four weeks earlier. In a signed editorial he wrote: “Whatever demons drove him to these acts in the last two months of his life will no doubt eventually emerge. But whatever they were, the final, brutal truth is that far from going down as the man who saved this great national institution he will be remembered, I’m afraid, as the man who nearly destroyed it. A liar and a thief.”
Rupert Murdoch had no doubts that Maxwell’s death was suicide. “He must have been terrified of going to prison – as he would have done,” he said. After twenty years of close observation of the man and his methods, he concluded that Maxwell was dishonest and totally unreliable. “I’m only surprised by the fact that it’s possible to steal so much money.”
Bob Edwards and Mike Molloy reached the same “suicide” conclusion and for the same reason: the net was closing and Maxwell knew he was going to face ruin, ridicule and prosecution on criminal charges. The one thing Maxwell couldn’t stand was ridicule.
Those who claimed that suicide wasn’t in his nature ignored the fact that he had recently discovered he was chronically ill with liver and lung disease. They overlooked the effects of his alienation from his wife and children; the loss of the young woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life; the sale of his beloved Pergamon Press to the “wallpaper committee” of Reed Elsevier; and the reduction of his empire into a debt-laden husk.
Dr Iain West, head of forensic medicine at Guy’s Hospital, who attended an autopsy on Maxwell’s body in Jerusalem shortly before his burial, said the evidence suggested that he had killed himself. Finally, Anthony Whitaker, the lawyer who had fought off Maxwell on behalf of The Sunday Times, likened him to “Captain Hook and the crocodile rolled into one, with the alarm clock ticking away inside until, years later, he walked his own plank into the ocean”.
The line from the MGN board that Maxwell’s frauds had taken place in the last few months of his life was patently untrue – he had started using the pension fund to finance his Family Interests as early as 1985. The DTI inspectors would eventually report that during 1986 and 1987 he borrowed millions from the pension scheme without providing any form of security, while the last 15 months of his life were devoted to what one biographer called “dedicated criminality”.
Maxwell’s old opponent, DTI Inspector Rodney Leach, found it astonishing that within 20 years of his judgment that Maxwell was unfit to run a public company he was able to take the banks for more than £1 billion and deprive the investors in two public companies and their pension funds of hundreds of millions. “I take it to be unlikely that these crimes are all of recent origin, the ‘desperate acts of a desperate man’ who had overpaid for Macmillan [the publishing house for which he paid an exorbitant $2.6 billion],” he said. “On the contrary, they are of a piece with his whole former business life.”
Mike Molloy, who had left MGN well before the meltdown, admitted in the Independent on Sunday in 1992 that in trusting Maxwell he had made “the biggest mistake of my career”. Paul Foot had no difficulty putting his hands up. “We behaved like wimps,” he confessed.
Maxwell had issued his final writ on 22 October 1991, two weeks before his death, demanding damages for “very serious injury to his feelings and reputation” over an article in Private Eye that alleged he had been tampering with the Mirror Group Pension Scheme. Sir David Eady, a High Court judge specialising in libel cases, estimated there were about a hundred “gagging writs” outstanding at the time of Maxwell’s death. “It would no doubt be unfair to suggest,” he wrote, “that another factor [for the failure to detect Maxwell’s crimes] was drowsiness on the part of the ‘watchdogs’ or a reluctance to focus their attention too close to home by cleansing their own Augean kennels.”
Joe Haines, one of MGN’s four non-executive directors, went on the record to say that neither he nor his colleagues suspected anything illegal was afoot. “If I had had the faintest idea Maxwell was a crook,” he said, “I would have stood at the highest peak and shouted it.” There were those among the Mirror staff who remembered him shouting that very fact at an NUJ chapel meeting before Maxwell’s takeover in 1984.
Sir Robert Clark, another of the non-executive directors, had been a Maxwell crony since 1968 and was well aware of his sharp practices. He assured shareholders: “None of the directors would have taken on the job if we had thought Maxwell was a crook.” No banker was closer to Maxwell than Eric Sheinberg of Goldman Sachs but he was also oblivious to his client’s criminality: “I can’t help it, I didn’t know.” Sir Michael Richardson of N M Rothschild and Smith New Court, seemed mystified: “Bob was squeaky clean to me.”
Tony Boram was devastated that he had failed to prevent Maxwell’s wholesale looting of the pension funds. His colleagues, including former Mirror journalist Barbara Castle, recommended him to Downing Street for an honour but none was forthcoming; to grant one would have inferred official endorsement of the criticisms hurled at the Maxwells. No. 10 was more concerned about rescuing the “names” who had lost their money through speculative investments at high interest rates in Lloyd’s of London.
The investigation into Robert Maxwell’s misdeeds became a mini-industry. By September, 1992 nine major firms of accountants, 22 law firms, five investment bankers and a firm of brokers were involved. The Serious Fraud Office had more than 40 people working on the case. Up to £60 million was paid in fees to lawyers and accountants. “This is the biggest thing since Lloyd’s,” one of the solicitors involved in the case told me. “We’ve made so much money that we’ve voted Robert Maxwell ‘Businessman of the Year’.”
The Government set up the Maxwell Pensioners Trust Fund to retrieve money from financial institutions who had taken pension fund assets as collateral and wished to avoid court action. Sir John Cuckney, the government-appointed arbiter, recovered most of the missing £440 million – £276 million in out-of-court settlements and the government finally agreed a payout of £100 million – but the negotiations took three years and some of Maxwell’s non-MGN employees died without receiving a penny of their pensions. The ultimate insult to the pensioners was the appointment of two of Maxwell’s non-executive directors, Clark and Clements, as chairman and deputy chairman of MGN. Clark was 73 before he finally departed; Clements a little younger.
The last time I saw Maxwell in person was in the well of Court 11 at the Royal Courts of Justice in 1986. The jury had just awarded exemplary damages in a libel action against Private Eye and he was holding an impromptu press conference in the crowded courtroom. Lord Elwyn-Jones had told the jury: “What has struck me about him is his moral and physical courage.” As I moved closer to hear what Maxwell was saying, he lifted his head above the huddle and saw me. Smiling broadly, he gave me a big wink. It meant: “You see? I’ve got away with it again.”
Dr Robert Hare, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, describes a typical corporate psychopath as a “social predator who charms, manipulates and ruthlessly ploughs his way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. He selfishly takes what he wants and does as he pleases without the slightest sense of guilt or regret”. That was Maxwell. In late 1984 he said to me one night after a few drinks (scotch for Maxwell; vodka for me): “I came into this world with nothing and I will leave it with nothing.” He was the ultimate gambler who kept playing with other people’s money until he had lost it all.
Maxwell’s story is a classic example of how ruthless energy and a singularity of purpose can attain power and how that power can be used to corrupt others while, at the same time, destroying the power broker. Given the political and financial forces at work behind the scenes, there was never any chance of Maxwell’s victims getting anything like justice. The swindles were just too massive, and too many City luminaries were implicated. The bottom line was that Robert Maxwell stole £800 million and no one went to prison. You could say he committed the perfect crime.
By PETER THOMPSON
© Peter Thompson 2021. Extracted from Cudlipp’s Circus by Peter Thompson, Kindle Edition.
THE turning point in the Maxwell saga came in June, 1991 when I received a phone call from Mark Killick, a BBC producer with a deceptively easy-going style and an impressive track record in investigative journalism. He invited me to take part in “The Max Factor”, a Panorama investigation into Robert Maxwell’s financial affairs. In the final analysis it was the little, comparatively insignificant lies that would lead to Maxwell’s undoing. Mark Killick was the man who found them.
His news antennae had twitched in Maxwell’s direction when he received a press release from Maxwell Communications announcing the sale for £60 million of an Italian subsidiary. The press release stated: “Maxwell Communication Corporation plc (MCC) announces the sale to funds advised by Schroder Venture Advisers of 100% of MCC Italia – consisting of Panini Children’s Album Collection Publishers – for a consideration of approximately £60 million. Completion is planned during November 1990.”
Mark Killick discovered that MCC was lying: there was no such sale, a fact confirmed by the supposed buyer. The more closely he scrutinized Maxwell’s business affairs the more convinced Killick became that the tycoon was papering over the cracks, using the bogus sale of assets or buying his own shares in an attempt to manipulate the market. At the Stock Exchange Killick uncovered a classic piece of deception. The Exchange was informed that Maxwell, his family and associated companies had acquired 15,650,000 shares in MCC. However, a further announcement on 5 September showed the acquisition would take place on or before 30 November at 185p per share. A third announcement in December revealed that the investor was in fact a third party who had bought the shares as a put option [a put option is a contract in which the holder has the right but not the obligation to sell a specified quantity of a security at a specified price within a fixed period of time.] and then sold them back to Maxwell on the November date.
The significance of this manoeuvre was that MCC was due to publish its accounts in October and Stock Exchange rules forbade Maxwell from dealing in MCC shares in the previous two months. For that reason he had arranged for someone else to buy 15 million shares in August – just before the close period – and hold them until November, thus boosting the MCC share price. An MCC employee admitted off the record that, just as Mark suspected, Maxwell was creating a false market through a share support scheme. The reason wasn’t difficult to ascertain: a visit to Companies House showed that Maxwell had mortgaged MCC shares on 5 September in exchange for a loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia. The lower the share price the greater number of shares he would have to pledge as collateral. Mark says that all of these facts were contained in publicly available paperwork at MCC, the Stock Exchange and Companies House. “Nothing I’ve been involved with has depended on secret sources,” he says.
Mark recorded an interview with me about how Maxwell got his hands on a copy of the MGN flotation prospectus to ensure the success of his takeover bid for the Daily Mirror in 1984; how MGN changed after he had taken over as proprietor; how he interfered with editorial freedom; how he compared with Rupert Murdoch; and how he used the laws of libel to suppress “Maxwell: A Portrait of Power”, which I co-wrote with Tony Delano. I also provided the Panorama team with tapes of Maxwell’s conversations during the miners’ strike, the Ethiopian famine fiasco, and his failed attempt to take over the Melbourne Age, as well as a copy of my taped interview with Rupert Murdoch in New York in which he described Maxwell as “a business brigand”.
At the White City television studios Mark introduced me to Nisha Pillai, the tenacious, Indian-born reporter who would front “The Max Factor”. John Naughton, The Observer’s TV critic, later wrote: “Without doubt the programme of the year, Nisha Pillai’s astonishing film was the exposé which put the bolt into Maxwell’s shoulder by first revealing the extent of his corporate web and its utter dependence on the share price of the two public companies [MGN and MCC]. The film was a textbook example of British journalistic methodology, for it was based from the outset on a particular hypothesis (that Maxwell was a crook) and devoted all its resources to proving that proposition.
As a graduate in analytical economics at the LSE and a former merchant banker, Nisha had good contacts in the City. Aware of Maxwell’s underhand methods, she took precautions against electronic bugging and other forms of intrusion. “We completely changed our methods of working,” she says. “I was continually changing our computer codes on all our files, we locked everything obsessively, I never used my home telephone for business calls, I never used the phone on my desk – I always used neighbouring ones,” she says. “I was just trying to cover our tracks and, by and large, it must have worked because he simply didn’t know what was in the programme. We caught him napping.”
Mark Killick had the numbers checked by KPMG, a firm of accountants specialising in audit, tax and advisory services, and the edited programme was legalled by a leading Queen’s Counsel. The final decision to transmit the programme rested with John Birt, the deputy director-general. It was a foregone conclusion that Maxwell would sue for libel. “Will we win?” Birt asked the barrister. “I think it’s a true bill,” he replied. To everyone’s immense relief, Birt gave the go-ahead.
In a letter to Maxwell, Nisha Pillai broadly outlined the results of her research and asked for an interview. Fearing the disclosure of his massive debts and the consequent plundering of his companies’ pension funds, Maxwell went ballistic. Oscar Beuselinck, the former Private Eye lawyer who had jumped ship and was now Maxwell’s in-house lawyer, instructed his new libel specialist, George Carman QC, to obtain an injunction to prevent the broadcast going out. When that move failed, Maxwell wrote to Mark Thompson, the editor of Panorama, appealing for fairness and threatening punitive legal action for any perceived libels. He offered to grant an interview to Nisha Pillai but then withdrew the offer after exchanging harsh words with her.
Maxwell’s legal barrage, however, succeeded in having the programme postponed while the BBC’s legal team re-assessed the risk. The extent of the Corporation’s problem can be gauged from the fact that the lawyers estimated that if Maxwell sued the BBC and won his case it could cost as much as £70 million. “We knew we were putting the White City site on the line,” Mark Killick says. “We had to get it right.”
New York was blisteringly hot but Maxwell was suffering from a cold he could not shake off. Complaining that the air-conditioning at the Waldorf Towers was too chilly, he moved to the Helmsley Palace. His suite was on three floors, with living room, dining room, kitchen and office on the first floor and bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, a solarium and sundeck on upper floors. The solarium was on the third floor and could be reached only by a private lift. “RM delighted in ushering guests up there and then taking the elevator down, effectively trapping them,” his personal assistant Carolyn Hinsey says. “Sometimes they would call down to the office and say, ‘We’re still up here…’ We would reply, ‘Oh yes, Mr Maxwell will be right up.’ Once, he was particularly incensed with a guest and kept him baking in the solarium for four hours.”
Maxwell’s appetite for food was as gargantuan as ever: breakfast would be two or three bowls of cereal, a pot of coffee and a whole watermelon; for lunch, chicken soup, smoked salmon, matzo biscuits, pickled cucumbers, cheese, chocolate; dinner: $200-worth of Chinese food from Mr Fu, or three hamburgers with buckets of chips. His sole relaxation in the evening was watching videos but they had to be brand new, so Josef would be dispatched to purchase his favourite Clint Eastwood movies and anything else he felt like watching. But at this crucial stage of his life, with his treasuries running on empty, his formerly indomitable constitution had let him down. “His health was so bad that we thought he had pneumonia,” Carolyn Hinsey told me. He was always freezing cold, he had terrible circulation and he was coughing so much he couldn’t sleep. He was also drinking Dom Perignon throughout the day and at night he would have Chivas Regal and a couple of beers.
In the mornings the smell of cologne could not cover up the stench of alcohol seeping through his pores. People started to notice. To cover up the fault-lines in his haggard face he retired to his bathroom several times a day to patch up his PanCake make-up. Josef had stocked the medicine cabinet with vast quantities of paracetamol and Night Nurse. Maxwell was downing the stuff by the bottle. He also took food into the bathroom, hiding the dirty plates in cupboards. Instead of lavatory paper, he used cotton hand towels which were left on the floor. In his luxurious suite, Maxwell was living like a derelict.
Over the next few weeks Maxwell made several day-trips from New York to London in his Gulfstream IV. Returning to U.S. airspace late at night, he chose to land at Westchester airport where a “friendly” customs officer would wave him and his entourage through. “It wasn’t so much that he was smuggling anything in,” says my source. “He was just bringing in food he wasn’t supposed to – delicacies they didn’t sell here.” This was typical Maxwell: the strict quarantine laws forbidding the importation of foodstuffs into the United States did not apply to him.
When he turned up at a reception in France on 24 August, his wife Betty was stunned by the deterioration in his health. “All of a sudden, he looked very old,” she recalls. “He was gasping for air and sweating profusely.” Maxwell’s bronchial activity had reached alarming proportions. Back in New York, Eric Sheinberg of Goldman Sachs persuaded him to seek medical help. Despite Maxwell’s aversion to the medical profession – “I don’t use doctors; never go to them” – he made an appointment to see a radiologist on Fifth Avenue and had several tests, including a chest X-ray and a blood test.
“Well, it’s not pneumonia,” he said on returning to the Daily News Building, but he did not elaborate. The last thing he wanted the world to know was that he was seriously ill. The tests revealed that he was suffering from pulmonary edema, the main symptoms of which are difficulty in breathing, coughing up blood, excessive sweating, anxiety and a pallid complexion. He had also developed cirrhosis, the liver disease caused by heavy drinking and obesity. “I have been blessed with a powerful constitution,” he had boasted to me back in 1984. “I will take a lot of stopping.” But now he could no longer deny, at least to himself, that his days were numbered.
“The Max Factor” was scheduled for screening on Monday, 23 September. Maxwell launched a pre-emptive strike in the previous day’s Sunday Mirror with an astonishing attack on the “jackals” of the BBC. The piece was signed by “Robert Maxwell, Publisher”, and was so badly written that he may well have written it himself. His fury wasn’t directed at the BBC alone: it was also aimed at Tony Boram, a former MGN director who had created the Association of Mirror Pensioners to inquire into why there had been no increase in individual pensions for several years from an obviously rich fund. Boram had recently voiced his concerns to the Daily Mail that only one of the pension fund’s twenty investments was in a leading British company, while 40 per cent were in foreign companies or in MCC and the Mirror Group. On the same page as the anti-BBC editorial, the Sunday Mirror ran a news story attacking the “small group of disgruntled pensioners” who had the temerity to question the management of the MGN fund.
And then, after what seemed an eternity, the familiar theme music filled my living room and the Panorama logo flashed on to the screen. In the Mirror Building, reporters and sub-editors crowded around to watch what was billed as “A special investigation by Nisha Pillai into the working practices of media tycoon Robert Maxwell”. In her opening salvo to camera, Nisha asserted that the investigation “raises grave questions about the way Mr Maxwell sometimes does business”. His false claims about profits and debts had “distorted the market in MCC shares”. She also revealed that as well as Liechtenstein, he had set up offshore trusts in Gibraltar, and she explained the convoluted and highly suspicious links between his various private concerns and the publicly quoted companies, MCC and MGN.
Nisha drew attention to the flotation of MGN and noted, “Public share offers should be conducted on a ‘fair and open’ basis, says the Stock Exchange rule book. Clearly the Mirror share prospectus wasn’t as open as it could have been.” She highlighted the sales that had been announced by Maxwell Communications but had not taken place; the company’s high level of debt; and the erosion of its operating profits by the bill for interest payments. And she revealed that Maxwell had been up to his old tricks of using transactions between the Family Interests and Maxwell Communications to bolster MCC’s share price.
The programme then made a surprise disclosure: it revealed that Maxwell had cheated Mirror readers of a £1 million prize in a Spot-the-Ball competition. Viewers who might have found Nisha Pillai’s painstaking financial analysis over their heads had no difficulty following this message: “It was Mr Maxwell himself who decided to run a dishonest game and cheat his readers.” Headlines in the British press such as “MAXWELL TRICKED MIRROR READERS OUT OF £1M” did enormous damage to the paper’s reputation.
Maxwell was in New York. He listened to the programme over the telephone in his suite at the Helmsley and had a transcript faxed to him. Despite all the new allegations, Maxwell claimed in a statement that “The Max Factor” was nothing but “a rehash of old smears that have been disproved”. He kept his London lawyers up all night dictating his requirements. Later that day Oscar Beuselinck issued writs against Panorama’s editor, director and reporter for libel and malicious falsehood. But the BBC’s legal experts had done a good job. There were justified grounds for questioning the soundness of Maxwell’s public companies and the facts as presented in the programme could not be disputed.
“Devastating,” opined one City stockbroker. One bank chairman in the City who had ordered his staff to record the programme sent a copy to every director; The Economist started asking questions; The Independent was served with another injunction. But once again the storm blew over and Maxwell carried on as usual. Apparently unconcerned, he chaired a conference on race relations with Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York, and the New York Mayor, David Dinkins. He also made arrangements to print The European in the United States. I didn’t know then that he was seriously ill; he seemed as indestructible as ever.
Meanwhile, Maxwell’s seven years of chronic mismanagement had brought MGN to breaking point. Ernie Burrington, who had risen from editor of the People to deputy chairman of MGN, was now joint managing director with Vic Horwood. The two MDs and finance director Laurie Guest were increasingly worried about cash being moved out of the Mirror Group treasury, ostensibly into money-making investments of their boss’s choosing.
In September and October two huge chunks of company cash – £47 million and £50 million – disappeared. Maxwell had diverted the £47 million to the Daily News to cover its losses but he wasn’t about to tell Laurie Guest that. The £50 million, supposedly invested in gilts, was used to pay pressing debts. Guest was so concerned about the ramshackle state of the accounts that he confronted Maxwell during one of his flying visits to London and demanded that the money be returned. On 15 October he wrote a note to himself:
“I am now convinced that MGN resources have been used to support other parts of the group, but I have no proof. I think I have frightened the chairman but my main concern must be to get the money back. I think I am in a situation that nothing more will flow out although I don’t have the mechanism to stop it.”
That same day Maxwell spent an hour discussing his defamation action against Panorama with Oscar Beuselinck and George Carman. “We’ll get the bastards,” he told Carman. “I know you’ll destroy them for me.” “Robert and George” – it was first names from the beginning – made an odd couple, one tall and fat, the other short and insignificant, but they had many qualities in common. Both were bullies with a lethal charm, a lack of conscience and a compulsion to dominate or humiliate other people. They also shared a love of drinking and gambling, though Robert’s table manners would have appalled the fastidious George.
But despite his faith in Carman’s interrogatory powers, Maxwell’s legal moves against the BBC came to nothing, just as his financial woes grew immeasurably worse. Only his bluster was keeping creditors at bay. Bankers were buttered up with a combination of champagne diplomacy and barefaced lying. “Liechtenstein” was presented as the source of untold wealth when in fact the trusts contained nothing but shares in MCC and MGN whose value was dwindling by the day. When promised repayments failed to be turn up, human error in the “back room” of MCC was blamed.
But the excuses were wearing thin; stress fractures were breaking out all over the imperial structure. There was nothing Maxwell’s lawyers or his editors could do to save their paymaster. It was only a matter of time before the systematic looting of company bank accounts and pension funds would be exposed to the wider world. Any senior executive who asked awkward questions was shown the door, usually with a large payoff to ensure silence.
On 17 October, the Scitex shares owned by Robert Maxwell Group (RGM) and the Common Investment Fund were sold for £139 million (an astonishing profit of more than £100 million). The proceeds were paid to National Westminster who used them to discharge RMG’s overdraft and to make a payment of £30 million towards other debts. Goldman Sachs knew that Maxwell treasured these shares and correctly concluded that apart from his shares in MGN and MCC the cupboard was bare.
On 21 October Laurie Guest met Maxwell in his office at Maxwell House in the presence of Burrington and Horwood. Guest plunged in. Repayments to the MGN treasury had not been made, shareholders’ cash was being used speculatively and the flow of information about these deals was totally inadequate. He also questioned Maxwell’s use of pension fund money and the investment return it appeared to be yielding. Regarding the missing £47 million, Guest said he was so worried about it, he was unable to sleep. “You are losing sleep and that’s not right,” Maxwell said soothingly. “You will receive everything. Don’t worry.” Maxwell promised to meet Guest and Burrington again on 1 November. In his notes Guest wrote:
“The chairman stated there should be no problems and that I should obtain all information from Michael Stoney [one of Maxwell’s obliging accountants]. My removal would be a disaster to the group and not in the interest of anybody.”
At a meeting in New York on 22 October Maxwell paid the remaining balance outstanding on MCC shares purchased in July and August, though he was rapidly losing his grip on the situation. At this crucial moment his health – and his luck – had deserted him. His heart, his liver and his lungs were diseased, his teeth were rotting in his head and he was having trouble breathing, He was also depressed, short-tempered and liable to fall asleep during meetings. While New Yorkers were taking in advertisements for the American edition of The European that showed Maxwell under the legend “New York’s Favourite European”, two other newspapers were hinting at the impending meltdown of his empire. The Independent calculated that the Family Interests had debts amounting to £1 billion, while MCC’s indebtedness exceeded its assets by almost £400 million. A few days later, on Saturday 26 October, the New York Times ran this damaging paragraph:
Mr Maxwell’s efforts to sell parts of his worldwide empire to reduce his overall $3 billion debt have prompted speculation that the empire might collapse, taking the Daily News with it.
The effect on Maxwell was shattering. Later that day Carolyn Hinsey saw him in his suite at the Helmsley. “His condition was worse by far than I had ever seen,” she said. “All day he screamed at me, ‘Get the dickhead from the Times, the dickhead from my press office’. Toward the end of the day, he screamed at me to find the editor of the Sunday Mirror, Bridget Rowe, who was on deadline and away from her desk. I told him I would keep trying and he picked up the phone and threw it across the room at my head, yelling, “You are a fucking idiot; you can’t do anything”.’ Carolyn deftly caught the phone. ‘Do you feel better now?’ she asked.
Maxwell stormed upstairs to his bedroom and ordered Josef to bring up a bottle of Chivas Regal, ice and tonic water. He was consumed with anger and self-pity. He was alone now. The adulation, the power counted for nothing. Word of his imminent financial demise was being faxed to bankers, lawyers, politicians and competitors around the world. “A few hours later he called on the intercom and said I could knock off,” Carolyn said. “I never saw him again.”
Maxwell’s fury was easy to understand. At a time when Gorbachev, Kissinger, Shamir and John Major were taking his calls, when he had eclipsed Rupert Murdoch as an international figure, when dozens of media outlets clamoured for his views, when all the trinkets of fame were his for the taking, his empire was about to go belly up. Knowing he would be exposed as a liar, a cheat and a thief, he cut himself off from members of his family. He was dismissive of Betty and had stopped taking calls from Isobel and Christine; Ghislaine was having trouble getting through but he was still communicating with Kevin and Ian about the problems at MCC.
New York saw the last of its “Favourite European” on Monday, 28 October when the Gulfstream took off for London. He left behind a trail of unpaid bills and broken promises. Minneapolis would never see the $50 million he had pledged to the Gorbachev Maxwell Institute, and the Polytechnic of New York is still awaiting a philanthropic gift of $10 million. According to his closest editorial allies, there was no sign of the impending doom. On Tuesday, 29 October Maxwell had lunch with his politburo at Holborn Circus. Joe Haines says Maxwell was relaxed and had enjoyed his food. Later, Maxwell attended a short MGN board meeting, and in the evening spoke to one of his executives and arranged to see him again the following week.
On Wednesday, 30 October, Goldman Sachs informed Maxwell that it would sell MCC shares to retrieve loans of $35 million and £25 million if no repayment was made. No money was forthcoming and the bank began unloading 2.2 million shares the following day. At the same time Citibank was demanding $45 million for a foreign currency deal on 18 October; Swiss Bank had compiled a dossier on an unpaid debt of £55.7 million that would be given to the Fraud Squad on 5 November; and the Financial Times had worked out that the Family Interests had debts of £2.2 billion. The only people who seemed completely unaware of Maxwell’s predicament were his editorial allies at Holborn Circus.
At 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 31 October – the day of the Goldman share sale – Maxwell flew out of Luton in the Gulfstream for a rendezvous with the Lady Ghislaine. He’d told his secretary that he was going on a cruise to get rid of his persistent cold but instructed her not to disclose his whereabouts to anybody. Unusually, none of his aides accompanied him, not even his valet or his butler. By a nice touch of irony, the yacht was moored at Gibraltar, so recently paired with Liechtenstein as the home of those secretive trusts. During the flight Maxwell was said to be relaxed and in a good mood. The skipper of the Lady Ghislaine, Captain Gus Rankin, met him at the airport and after discussing the options it was decided to sail to Madeira, the Portuguese island 600 miles away in the Atlantic.
The voyage took the rest of Thursday and all of Friday. Maxwell spent most of the daylight hours in his favourite spot on the for’ard sundeck at the top of the yacht’s superstructure. Apparently at ease, he read, played music on his quadrophonic sound system and sunbathed. Back in the Mirror Building his disappearance generated a rumour: “He’s done a runner.”
On Saturday, 2 November, Maxwell strolled around Funchal, capital of Madeira, went for a swim despite his cold, and visited the local casino. The crew of Lady Ghislaine later recalled that he made fewer phone calls than usual and was in an uncharacteristically good mood, even complimenting them on their work. Next day, Maxwell ordered Gus Rankin to sail to Tenerife, 250 miles distant in the Canaries. That night he dined on board and then retired to his cabin where he made several phone calls, all of which were monitored by GCHQ’s listening post at Cheltenham. Relevant Sigint (signals intelligence) was passed to the Joint Intelligence Committee and prepared as briefing notes for Ministers (although the Prime Minister, John Major, later denied in the Commons that he had any prior knowledge of Maxwell’s financial difficulties).
At 10.25 a.m. on Monday, 4 November, Lady Ghislaine berthed at Dársena Pesquera, near the Tenerife capital of Santa Cruz. If Maxwell was hoping for another quiet day in the sun, he was to be disappointed. In the space of a few hours Goldman Sachs ignored a request not to sell its 10 per cent stake in MGN, and Eddie George, deputy governor of the Bank of England, was informed about the sale; Citibank informed Maxwell that it was about to sell its collateral for the failed foreign exchange deal; and, in the evening, Lehman Brothers served “recall notices” forcing him to repay $80 million within twenty-four hours. Maxwell didn’t have the money to solve any of these problems; he was out of the game.
Maxwell had intended to return to London to make the keynote speech at an Anglo-Israeli Association dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel that evening. He suddenly changed his mind. Ian was asked to stand in for him, while Gus Rankin was instructed to spend the night cruising to Los Cristianos in the south of the island.
Before setting sail, Maxwell took a taxi to the Grand Hotel Mencey in Santa Cruz, ate a meal of hake with clams in a parsley and mushroom sauce, drank a couple of beers and, despite his bronchial condition, smoked a Havana cigar. He returned to the yacht at 9.45 p.m., tipping the taxi driver 1000 pesetas. Fifteen minutes later Gus Rankin cast off. He had plotted an easterly course that would take the yacht towards Gran Canaria and then swing south to its destination. The Gulfstream would be waiting there to fly Maxwell back to London.
Lord Northcliffe ended his life a pitiful lunatic believing that his dressing gown was trying to assassinate him. Maxwell’s last days were also haunted by paranoid fears of assassination. Before leaving New York he’d told Julian Kroll, the private detective whose organisation had investigated him in 1987, “There’s a serious threat to my life.” At the Labour Party conference in Brighton earlier that month, he’d informed Alastair Campbell, “People are out to get me.” But whereas Northcliffe was confined to a shed on a neighbour’s roof in Carlton House Gardens, Maxwell was surrounded by the obscene luxury of his £12 million floating gin palace.
That evening Maxwell received a fax of the front page of the following day’s Daily Mirror and spoke to the editor, Richard Stott, on the phone. “He seemed okay,” Stott recalled. “He was not depressed.” At 11.15pm Maxwell received a phone call from Ian, who reported on the success of his speech at the Grosvenor House. Ian says his father was in a good mood; when Ian ended the call with “See you tomorrow then” Maxwell had replied, “You bet.’”
But Maxwell wasn’t going anywhere. At 4.10a.m. on Tuesday, 5 November. 1991 one of the crew, Graham Leonard, saw him on the aft lower deck staring at the lights of Gran Canaria. The night was hot, the sea calm. When Maxwell returned to his cabin he phoned the bridge and asked for the air-conditioning to be switched on. He knew then that his empire was about to implode, that he would be convicted of fraud and probably spend the rest of his life in Wormwood Scrubs. The thought of Rupert Murdoch hearing of his downfall was more than he could bear. At 4.45a.m. he rang the bridge again and asked for the air-con to be switched off. It was his final instruction.
About half an hour later he went back on deck after locking his cabin door. Tearing off his nightgown, he threw it over the side. He shuffled to the thick wire railing and lowered himself over the side. One can imagine that for a moment the mask slipped and, stripped of all his flamboyance, he looked entirely vulnerable. For what seemed an eternity he clung on, tearing the muscles in his left shoulder from the effort. On the enclosed bridge the crew didn’t hear the splash over the rhythmic throb of the engines.
Maxwell landed on his back. At the moment of impact all the air was driven out of his one remaining lung and the shock of the cold water closed his larynx reflexively. Struggling for breath, his heartbeat and blood pressure soared dangerously, triggering a heart attack. As the Lady Ghislaine disappeared silently into the night, Ian Robert Maxwell, either through suffocation or cardiac arrest, ceased to exist. The astonishing thing wasn’t that he was dead, but that he had lived so long.
EXCLUSIVE to AMP
The Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, by John Preston (Viking, £18.99)
ROY GREENSLADE, media commentator and blogger, former editor of the Daily Mirror, and a member of the AMP, reviews John Preston’s new book.
WE KNEW Cap’n Bob, did we not? And, after his death, we learned even more. Now, between us, there’s probably little we don’t know about him. We all have our memories: the bad, the bizarre, the barmy. Close up, we watched him operate as bully, braggart and brigand. Down the years since his suicide in 1991 (I’ll come to that), we have dined out on Robert Maxwell stories.
So, what could John Preston’s biography possibly tell us anew? Well, to be honest, not much more than the odd detail and the occasional eye-popping anecdote (such as one about Maxwell carrying Eleanor Berry out of hospital to prevent her undergoing ECT). But it doesn’t matter in the least, because Preston’s skilful, straightforward retelling of Maxwell’s extraordinary life is an admirable piece of journalism. It is a dispassionate account that makes sense of a man who lived from boyhood to manhood, and on to his death, entirely by his own rules.
When news broke of Preston’s book, a friend emailed me to ask: “Do we really need it?” No, we probably didn’t need it. Yet, in reading it, I came to realise its value. Aside from making sense of our experiences as his employees, it is instructive for current and future generations to understand how and why sociopaths so often manage to rise to positions of power in business and politics. Page after page, incident after incident, we cannot help but note the similarity between Maxwell’s mendacity and vainglory and that of Donald Trump.
It is highly doubtful that too many of us will enjoy this book. After all, Maxwell’s greed and grandiosity put our pensions in jeopardy. Sure, in the long term, we have not suffered as greatly as people who worked in some of his other companies, but I do recall two years of concern following the revelation of his plunder. I hope enough time has passed since then to allow you to appreciate the merits of Preston’s research and the quality of his writing.
He has resisted the temptation to repeat a string of the Maxwellian follies that do the rounds among those of us still alive to recall them. Instead, as Julia Langdon notes in her review of the book in the next British Journalism Review (due out in March: www.bjr.org.uk), he has stuck to the facts, allowing nuggets of humour to emerge through his adroit use of that font known in Fleet Street as “ironic bold”.
Arguably, Preston’s greatest achievement is in having secured interviews with several people who have previously remained silent. They include three of Maxwell’s children – Isabel, Christine and Ian – and, most impressively, Rupert Murdoch. The testimonies of the children, which reinforce the portrait of Maxwell drawn by his wife, Betty, in her memoir, add a depth lacking in previous biographies. They illustrate how emotionally impervious their father was to personal tragedies, the deaths of a daughter and his eldest son.
More significantly, for the survivors, was his brutal treatment of them. “I always felt I had to court his approval,” Ian tells Preston. “Dad always beat us if we’d been lazy or inattentive… He would beat us with a belt – girls as well as boys – and then afterwards you would have to write him a letter saying how you were going to be different in future.”
One of them did get off more lightly: the youngest, Ghislaine, now in a New York jail awaiting trial on charges, which she strenuously denies, of helping to supply minors to the late Jeffrey Epstein as part of a sex-trafficking conspiracy. In her infant years she was, recalls Ian, “basically ignored”. That changed after she confronted Betty, saying: “Mummy, I exist.” From then on, she was indulged and spoiled, becoming her father’s favourite. Whatever we may feel about Ghislaine – and we British journalists, unlike our American counterparts, know better than to speculate about a person’s guilt before their trial – we cannot be in any doubt that she, like her siblings, was marked by the tyrannical parenting of their father.
Turning to his business affairs, Preston’s detailed narrative confirms what Tom Bower had tried to reveal to the world many years before Maxwell’s death: he was a crook given credence by assorted lawyers, bankers, accountants and stockbroking analysts who were willing to overlook his misdeeds for their own financial benefit. As far back as 1969, during Maxwell’s attempt to fool American financier Saul Steinberg into paying £25 million to acquire Pergamon Press, Maxwell’s solicitor wrote: “Mr Maxwell is a man of undoubted integrity.”
The pattern had been set. Despite knowing Maxwell to be a man of undoubted duplicity, the men in suits he hired too readily averted their gaze. Why, they reasoned, kill the goose laying golden eggs? How galling it was for us, and for everyone who suffered losses due to Maxwell, to read corporate statements issued after his death claiming that supposed financial experts had been deceived. Preston refuses to apportion blame, but the evidence against the City scroungers is damning. Max Hastings rightly remarked in his Times review of the book that it was Maxwell’s enablers who were the real villains.
One person who realised, as early as 1963, that Maxwell was a con-man was Rupert Murdoch. He narrowly escaped being inveigled by Maxwell into paying a million Australian dollars for worthless encyclopaedias. Murdoch went on, as we know, to defeat Maxwell in three major takeover battles. In one of them, Maxwell foolishly boasted of victory before he had done the deal, enabling Murdoch to intervene and win the prize.
As Murdoch told Preston, Maxwell’s problem was that he “couldn’t stop showing off… it was always personal with him, whereas with me, it was never personal”. Murdoch’s character-reading is spot on: “I never spoke about him, but he couldn’t stop talking about me. Whatever we did, he wanted to do it too… I could see that he was ruining everything he touched. He was a total buffoon really.”
Finally, there is the so-called mystery of his death. In my own biography, Maxwell’s Fall, published within months of his plunge into the Atlantic, I said I was certain he took his own life. Murdoch evidently agrees. Preston won’t be drawn, allowing readers to make up their own minds. He does appear to pour cold water on the murder theory by quoting the dismissive statement by the captain of Maxwell’s yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. Of the other two possibilities, accident or suicide, he says his interviewees were divided down the middle.
Those who believe it was suicide argue that Maxwell could not face the ignominy of being held to account for the money removed from the pension funds. Those, like his family, who think it was an accident, suggest it was relatively easy to fall over the side. In company with two of the crew, I conducted a test on a yacht like Maxwell’s in dry dock at Portsmouth. It did not seem possible to fall over the railings, even for a top-heavy man. Squeezing between the railings was just about feasible, and I was far thinner than Maxwell, but to do so at night while at sea would have been, and I use the adjective intentionally, suicidal. Preston’s final word on the debate is well chosen: perhaps.
THE arrest by the FBI last July of GHISLAINE MAXWELL in New Hampshire, USA, for allegedly procuring under-age girls for Jeffrey Epstein, led to a shoal of requests to AMP from media all around the world.
They wanted background on Robert Maxwell; details of the MGN pension scandal; the Maxwell dynasty; information about Ghislaine and her relationship with her father – and so on.
Requests came from magazines, documentary makers and podcasters. Some of the AMP committee were interviewed, along with many other Mirror alumni, and now some of the programmes and broadcasts are out there:
One outfit we were involved with was production company Somethin’ Else (https://somethinelse.com/), and we’ve heard from producer Paul Smith: “Here’s the link for our podcast series about Robert Maxwell. Episode 1 has just been released:
You’ll probably recognise some of the voices! (Maxwell pic: Daily Mirror)
IAN AUSTIN, now Lord Austin of Dudley, who was previously a Patron in the House of Commons for the AMP when he was a Labour then independent MP, has agreed to continue his support for us in the House of Lords. He sits in the Lords as a non-affiliated life peer, i.e independent.
Among several posts as an MP in both government and Opposition, Ian Austin served as Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions. Lord Austin told Tom Brown, AMP’s life vice-president: “I would love to continue as your friend in Parliament.”
Tom Brown said: “I’m delighted. Ian is a good watchdog and spokesman and very on the ball. He’s well respected across party lines.”
Gerald Mowbray, AMP’s secretary, added: “We have regained another strong voice for AMP members in Parliament.”
PETER THOMPSON, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror, became a full-time author in 1991.
He has just published his 21st book, a biography of the great reformer Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, the forgotten hero of the Russian Revolution.
Please go to Members’ Noticeboard for all the gen.