Maxwell vs Murdoch - the untold story

Stop Press: Archer writes witty book! The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99

Like some two-headed mutant offspring of Citizen Kane, Jeffrey Archer's new novel offers a thinly disguised account of the lives of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, here called Richard Armstrong and Keith Townsend. Armstrong, born Lubji Hoch, is a Czech Jew who escapes to Britain in wartime. Later serving in the British army of occupation, he swindles himself the rights to a German scientific publisher's list, underpaying the royalties until he amasses enough cash to start taking over newspapers. He is a gourmand and a ferocious litigant. (One of Maxwell's sons has attempted to ban the book and failed.)

Townsend is an Oxford-educated Australian who inherits and vastly expands his family's newspaper business. He is more a gambler than a crook, though at school he does pinch some of the cricket pavilion fund to bet on a horse, in a comic foreshadowing of the pension-fund theft that will eventually cause Armstrong's ruin.

There is a rumour in book circles that Archer's manuscripts, as delivered to his publishers, are simply awful, and that the editors should take credit for the finished product. On the evidence of The Fourth Estate, this is untrue. In a properly edited text, we would not be told that Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, or that the Allies landed in Normandy on 5 June 1944, which can't be a simple misprint because the previous day is given as 4 June. And since the editors don't seem to have done any work, Archer must be held responsible for the novel's merits as well as its faults. So we can thank him for such observations as: "it was still a court-martial offence for a British officer to have an overdraft.''

For the same reason, where any nicely turned sentences occur, we should put them down to authorial, not editorial talent. For example: "Two decisions were made when Keith was 11 which were to shape the rest of his life, and both of them caused him to burst into tears.'' Or, dealing with Armstrong this time, "People he had never been able to get an appointment with in the past were inviting him to lunch at the Garrick, even if, having met him, they didn't go as far as suggesting he should become a member.''

Though you might not guess it from his public persona, Archer has a dry sense of humour. Townsend, in the middle of a squash game at the New York Racquets Club, hears of a possible deal and flies straight to Heathrow, where "the cabbie didn't feel it was his place to ask why his fare was wearing a track suit and carrying a squash racket. Perhaps all the courts in New York were booked.'' Later, Armstrong drives through Manhattan to a key meeting and wonders how the other side got there ahead of him. "I suspect they walked,'' says his lawyer.

In the most sustained humorous sequence, Townsend gets bested by an ageing English heiress who has written an abysmal pornographic novel. She agrees to sell him her newspaper shares on condition he publishes the embarrassing bonkbuster. He puts lots of clever get-out clauses in the contract but she spots them all. No doubt more could be made of this Wodehousian material, but Archer doesn't do too badly.

Once Townsend acquires the paper, here called the Globe rather than the Sun, a curious thing happens. It is 1968, Wilson is at No.10 and Heath is opposition leader. Townsend instals his new editor, makes plans to turn the paper into a tabloid and prepares to tackle the print unions. A "few months'' are said to have gone by, the situation is the same, but suddenly the background has changed. Thatcher now leads the opposition and is poised to win the 1979 election.

This would be absurd if it weren't so Shakespearian. It exactly replicates the famous double time- scheme in Othello. Presumably, with Archer as with Shakespeare, these things are not quite mistakes, and not calculated trickery either, but stem from a kind of serendipity or constructive carelessness. It certainly helps the pace.

Archer doesn't do insight or atmosphere, and gives the imagination very few cues. But at least in the second half, when the dealmaking becomes more competitive, the pull of the story to some extent makes up for the lack of depth, and although it will frustrate those who enjoy wordplay and cerebral exercise,The Fourth Estate is not wholly unsatisfactory.

Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk