Cap'n Bob? We won't hear a bad word said against him

Robert Maxwell lives on in the memory as a bully, a buffoon, a boardroom crook. But, 10 years after his death, he still casts a spell on many who should know better.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ten years ago Robert Maxwell disappeared. One of the most enigmatic public figures of the time, Maxwell ­ publisher, politician, businessman and, it emerged, crook ­ was missing, presumed dead, having fallen out of his yacht into the sea off the Canaries. Shortly after the discovery of his body and his burial on the Mount of Olives came the revelation that he had embezzled some £450m from his employees' pension funds in a cynical attempt to prop up his ailing business empire.

That this almost comical figure of buffoonery and bullying had at last been proved a crook merely confirmed the long-held suspicions of his many critics. But it appeared to be a total surprise to the ranks of Maxwell courtiers who hailed him as a hero and idolised him after his death. To this day many have failed to condemn his greed and dishonesty, preferring either to remain silent about his misdeeds or continue to praise his "good side". Yet far from being tainted by the sordid spectre of Cap'n Bob, some of his most ardent fans have, a decade later, slid effortlessly into the most powerful jobs in the land. None more so than Alastair Campbell, who was political editor of the Daily Mirror at the time of Maxwell's death in 1991 and who is now credited with being the second most important man in Britain after the Prime Minister.

As Tony Blair's gatekeeper and chief adviser he has transferred his allegiance to one more worthy of it, but he was previously notorious for his fanatical support for Maxwell, who was then his newspaper's proprietor. On the day of Maxwell's death he even exchanged fisticuffs with a rival political editor who had failed to display sufficient reverence to his boss and idol. Even Anne Robinson, waspish quizmaster of The Weakest Link and the highest-paid TV presenter in Britain, fell under his spell. Her eulogies on his death demonstrated only too well how he worked his magic on the people he sought to influence. "He left me reeling from his charm," she said, "his amazing panache and the sheer speed at which his brain worked. He was my inspiration and my hero."

Ten years on Ms Robinson has had second thoughts, noting in her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, that it was "lamentable" that so many people "who should have known better" trusted him. But her lack of judgement has certainly not held her back.

Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's former press secretary and a Mirror columnist when Maxwell took over, had known better. He warned all and sundry not "to touch that man with a bargepole", but Maxwell soon charmed him into a state of uncritical worship. He frequently used the same technique to win detractors over: pinpointing their price and winning their sympathy.

In Mr Haines's case this took the form of offering promotion and a glowing future on the one hand, and a promise of non-interference in his work and continued Mirror support for the Labour Party on the other. The results were nothing short of miraculous. From arch-critic he became one of the tycoon's closest lieutenants and idolator-in-chief ­ he even wrote the official hagiography of his boss.

Even now Mr Haines cannot conceal his admiration. "Not everything about him was bad," he says from his home in Tunbridge Wells. "He broke the union stronghold at the Mirror before Murdoch did the same, he introduced colour when Murdoch still thought it a mistake and he gave editors greater freedom. It's also easy to forget his many kindnesses."

Mr Haines now concedes at least that Maxwell was a bully and a rogue. But he places almost as much blame for the pensions scandal on the City slickers who financed him, failed to restrain him and gave him credibility again after he had been denounced by government inspectors in the 1970s as unfit to run a company.

Maxwell was brilliant at spotting vulnerable but useful people ­ and winning their eternal gratitude. Peter Jay, recently retired BBC economics editor, had not worked for two years after being sacked by Mrs Thatcher from his job as Britain's US ambassador. Maxwell presented him with a solution, offering him the job of chief of staff ­ or as the Mirror shop floor put it, chief of paperclips. Mr Jay has continued to be thankful, even now refusing to denounce him despite the ritual humiliations he suffered at his hands.

Maxwell, he says, was "like a woolly mammoth stomping through primeval forest ­ not immoral so much as pre-moral. You could at moments feel something bordering on pity and affection for him".

His comments must go down well with the thousands of Maxwell pensioners who spent years in fear of retiring into penury. Thanks only to the headbashing abilities of Lord Cuckney, the City eventually stomped up compensation for the plundered pension funds but not until after several hundred pensioners had died.

Ironically, another protégée became the minister responsible for pensions before rising to her current job of Scottish Secretary. Helen Liddell tried to distance herself from her past by claiming that she had never worked for Maxwell. In fact she was his director of corporate affairs in Scotland for several years, working with him on foreign trips and the Mirror Group flotation.

Two other old Maxwell hands have also served as ministers under New Labour. Geoffrey Robinson's Maxwell links did not stop him from becoming Paymaster General and close adviser to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown (who himself bought a flat cheaply from the administrators of a Maxwell company).

But Mr Robinson is one former associate whose past has come back to haunt him. He has just been suspended from the House of Commons for three weeks for misleading MPs over a £200,000 payment from a Maxwell company. By contrast, Lord Donoghue served successfully as a junior agriculture minister, untarnished by his stint as a £180,000-a-year director of a company used by Maxwell to siphon off shares from the pension funds.

The raft of well-paid advisers surrounding Maxwell and his companies have also continued to prosper. Vanni Treves, a City lawyer who advised a group of Maxwell directors against voicing concerns over their chairman, has, for instance, landed two jobs: chairman of Channel 4, and another, somewhat ironically, as chairman of beleaguered insurers Equitable Life.

Finally, no one has been convicted of any crime connected to one of the biggest frauds ever seen in this country. Maxwell's sons Kevin and Ian, and their former associate Larry Trachtenberg, were tried but all acquitted by a jury after one of the most expensive trials in history. Since then the Maxwell heritage has not prevented Kevin and Ian from pursuing their business careers or their society sister Ghislaine from hobnobbing with royalty.