TELEVISION / The teak tycoon: John Moore on the hard man of Lonrho

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The Independent Culture
THERE is something about the world of business which can (and often does) defeat television producers. The subject of wealth creation does not readily lend itself to a dynamic visual image to which a camera and an audience can respond. Normal routines of business involving documents, highly technical negotiations, accounts and assessments of business opportunities are hardly the stuff that attracts a mainstream audience.

When a programme involving tycoons does catch fire, it comes at the moment when the country houses, swimming pools, fast cars and executive jets are glimpsed. The bulk of this sort of television journalism is arid stuff, drawing on reports already published in newspapers and larded with interviews with people already mentioned in the daily prints.

A welcome exception to this standard fare came last night with Inside Story: Tiny Rowland (BBC 1), a profile of the rebel tycoon. Written and produced by Tom Bower (author of the most critical book about Robert Maxwell before that tycoon's death), the programme attempted to shed light on one of Britain's most enigmatic businessmen.

This is no easy task. Tiny Rowland is an intensely private man, who is utterly ruthless in the way he runs his business empire, Lonrho, and who has made a whole range of enemies over the years. Lonrho enjoys the reputation of probably being the most investigated company in the country. It was the subject of an exhaustive Department of Trade and Industry inquiry in the 1970s, and numerous of its transactions have been investigated by bodies such as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

What Bower attempted to do was to fill in the gaps left in the official inquiries to date. It is a daring task, one in which he was helped by a number of ex-Lonrho employees and senior executives, as well as individuals who have not always come out best in doing business with Tiny. The evidence presented here was partial, incomplete, with the gaps filled in by repetition of old facts and stock footage from the archives.

Perhaps Bower felt that he had not answered all the questions himself. The introduction opened with a visual comparison of Lonrho with the closing sequence of Citizen Kane, an apt enough image. The main part of the programme was taken up with Lonrho and Rowland's byzantine dealings in Africa, which aren't easily explained on television but which, for Lonrho watchers, added something to the sum of human knowledge.

By far the most revealing glimpse of Rowland's relationship with his companies was when the editor of the Observer (Donald Trelford) was caught ringing up his proprietor of 12 years (Rowland) to tell him what party the paper was going to support ahead of a general election. Kane would have been proud.