Maxwell, the BBC publicity material states, “is a gripping, dramatised account of how greed and ambition destroyed a man and led him to commit one of the world’s biggest-ever frauds”.
It is a view of the last 18 months of the life of publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, owner of the Daily Mirror, the New York Daily News and Macmillan Publishing, among a web of more than 400 companies.
Maxwell died mysteriously in 1991, just before the full extent of his fraud, which culminated in ripping off £450 million from the pension funds of the Daily Mirror staff to prop up his media empire, became public.
As a portrayal of the megalomaniacs who run today’s global businesses, the people whose “entrepreneurial spirit” New Labour wants us to admire and emulate, the drama is enjoyable.
However, the more you know about Robert Maxwell’s real life activities, the more unsatisfactory the programme is. The attempt to present Maxwell as a rounded personality ends up being far too soft a portrayal of the man.
David Suchet, who plays Maxwell, says he was drawn to the script because “it doesn’t just present him (Maxwell) as the big bully and evil, thieving man. That’s there and one judges it, but then his other life is there as well.”
But the essence of Maxwell was not that he was a complex person, but that he was a lifelong bully and thief who ultimately became a monster.
Much more could have been made of the events that made him a monster – his poverty stricken east European origins, the Nazi Holocaust that devoured his family, his desperate and often unscrupulous efforts to establish himself as a businessman.
Nothing at all is made of his intimate links with the Labour Party. We are told that he was briefly an MP but not that he was a Labour MP.
Yet long before New Labour, Maxwell was Labour’s businessman. Indeed the whole New Labour operation was about breaking the party’s links with organised workers and bringing in more people like Maxwell.
Among Maxwell’s Labour cronies were Geoffrey Robinson – Tony Blair’s former paymaster general and the man who provided Peter Mandelson with an interest free mortgage.
Robinson was a director of one of Maxwell’s companies. Another crony was Peter Jay, a former ambassador and son-in-law of former Labour prime minster Jim Callaghan.
In 1991, when he was a Mirror journalist, New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell was so attached to Maxwell that he thumped Guardian journalist Michael White for making a quip about “Captain Bob, Bob, Bob” after Maxwell drowned falling from his yacht.
Maxwell did sterling service for the Labour Party. He used his ownership of the Daily Mirror, to run a smear campaign against Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, alleging he was corrupt.
Scargill and the socialist values he represented were seen as a barrier to the “modernisation” of the Labour Party.
The vile attacks, which lasted for the best part of a year, were baseless, yet they did terrible damage.
Another set of Maxwell’s friends who get off far too lightly are those in the boardrooms of the City of London.
These people had known for decades that Maxwell was a crook, but they cared little so long as they got a percentage of the ill gotten gains.
In 1971 a Department of Trade and Industry report said plainly, “Robert Maxwell is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a public company.”
When the official report into Maxwell’s final fraud was published – a decade after the events – it listed numerous organisations. These included:
- Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, which, said the report, bore “substantial responsibility” for letting Robert Maxwell get away with his manoeuvres. The bank made £23 million profit from its Maxwell dealings. It was fined £160,000.
- Samuel Montagu & Co, now part of HSBC bank, masterminded the initial stock market launch of Maxwell’s MGN corporation. The report says it included “inaccurate and misleading” details in the share prospectus.
- Coopers & Lybrand Deloitte accountants “failed to report abuses” to pension fund trustees.
- Labour peer Lord Donaghue, a Maxwell director, ought to have been able to find out what was going on. But he never asked the obvious questions.
- City firms Lehman Brothers, Nikko, Capel Cure Myers, Morgan Grenfell and NatWest Investment Management were all found guilty of breaches of rules.
It is precisely firms like these that New Labour wants us to trust with our pensions, our housing estates and welfare services. Perhaps it is impossible to satirise or make a drama out of something so utterly crass.
Maxwell will be broadcast on Friday 4 May at 9pm on BBC2