By Celia Hutchison
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Fall by John Preston review—charting Robert Maxwell on the road to ruin

An account of press baron Robert Maxwell’s life gives us an insight into the world that might have created such a monster of a man
A picture of Robert Maxwell, black and white

Robert Maxwell (Picture: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Robert Maxwell died in mysterious circumstances in November 1991. He was best known for his ownership of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror newspaper. The day his body was found floating in the sea was the day his publishing empire would collapse under the weight of unpaid and unpayable debts.

John Preston’s book Fall aims to tell the story of Maxwell the man, and his financial and personal downfall. Maxwell was born Jan—or possibly Ludvik—Hoch in 1923 to extremely poor Jewish parents in then Czechoslovakia. His family suffered horrifically at the hands of the Nazis after the occupation in 1938. His mother and other members of his family died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Maxwell fought with the British during the Second World War and was decorated. Preston tells us Maxwell seemed proud to shoot civilians and men who were surrendering, though his sons claim he later regretted his behaviour. He worked for British Intelligence. After the war, Maxwell settled in Britain and fought for acceptance in the British establishment, even denying his Jewish background until much later in life. 

He was certainly a complex man. But the significance of Maxwell’s life lies in his economic crimes and his role at a key time for the British media after the defeat of the Miners Strike of 1984-5.

Maxwell had joined the Labour Party and was briefly an MP before losing his seat in the Labour defeat of 1970. In 1971 a Department of Trade and Industry report found he was not “a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company”. 

Yet in 1984, he bought Reed International—parent company of the Mirror Group of newspapers. With rising costs and falling profits, Reed were desperate to sell—even lending money to Maxwell to enable him to buy it. Ownership of the Mirror would give him immense power in the Labour Party. 

Preston tells us of Maxwell’s dictatorial style at the Mirror. In 1986 Rupert Murdoch had moved the printing of News International newspapers to Wapping, east London, to smash up the print workers’ unions. They fought back, but ultimately lost. Maxwell was able to use Murdoch’s victory to intimidate union leaders into accepting widespread redundancies. 

The account of Maxwell’s plunder of millions from the Mirror Group pension funds is detailed and devastating. However, I would have liked more on the impact of his ownership of the Mirror Group on the British media. Surely there could have been space in between the stories of his marriage, family life and lavish parties.

Preston does tell us of Maxwell’s editorial control and his rigged competitions. He employed Alistair Campbell, later chief strategist to Tony Blair, as political editor. Yet the book does not mention the The Mirror’s smear stories about miners’ leaders Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield. They included claims that the NUM union had received money from Libya and that Scargill had paid off his mortgage with this money. There was no truth in any of it.

Maxwell had fought to be admitted to the super rich and socially acceptable. For a short while, he lived that dream. It didn’t take long to oust him—mainly because he had failed to pay off his loans to the banks. The head of Swiss Bank now felt he had no alternative but to “alert the relevant authorities”. Would the fraud squad have been called in if it was a mere matter of a hole in a pension fund? 

Maxwell’s sons Ian and Kevin were put on trial for fraud and found not guilty. According to a later Department of Trade and Industry report, Kevin Maxwell knew what was happening to the pension funds. So did bank Goldman Sachs. They, of course, deny this.

Maxwell was buried in Israel. Among the mourners were the Israeli president and prime minister and Ariel Sharon. Tributes had already poured in from such dignitaries as then US president George Bush, then Labour leader Neil Kinnock and Margaret Thatcher.  

This is a book about Maxwell’s road to ruin. Preston meticulously lays out the facts of Maxwell’s life. We get a picture of a man who is boorish, arrogant and a crook. Preston’s well-written and very readable account gives us an insight into the world that might have created such a monster of a man.

Fall—The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston (Viking, £18.99)


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