Pivotal role for a 'bete noire'

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JOHN CUSTER MALONE has often been called the bete noire of the US cable television industry, accused by his enemies of using bully-boy tactics in building his Colorado-based empire, writes Mary Fagan.

As chief executive of Tele-Communications Inc and chairman of Liberty, he will have played a pivotal role in bringing to fruition the biggest deal the cable sector has ever seen. Even before yesterday's announcement, Mr Malone had shot into the headlines by backing a bid for Paramount by QVC, the home-shopping giant in which Liberty has a substantial stake.

Word has it that Al Gore, now US Vice-President, once called Mr Malone the ringleader of the cable industry 'Cosa Nostra'. He has certainly attracted the attention of media and politicians alike as his power and ambitions have grown.

At the same time, Mr Malone has proved expert at keeping on the right side of the US regulatory authorities. Hence in 1991, TeleCommunications spun off 95 per cent of Liberty into a separate company, apparently to fend off criticism over one company owning extensive cable interests as well as programming systems.

However, Mr Malone made sure he maintained control by taking on personally 20 per cent of the Liberty stock.

The decision to re-absorb Liberty - which emerged before the Bell Atlantic deal - was considered typical of Mr Malone's increasingly bold attitude towards regulators. One industry source said this was Mr Malone using the cable regulations as a 'sword'. 'The Cable Act says what the limits are and he is riding out to them,' he added.

Those closer to Mr Malone paint a less aggressive picture of the man. His colleagues refer to him as Dr Malone because he has a doctorate in operations research. They say that he is shy and extremely intelligent, which is why he may appear intimidating to some adversaries.

When working in Denver, Mr Malone is apt to shun power- dining to go home for lunch. His summer holidays are spent sailing in Maine, to which he drives as his wife, Leslie, prefers not to fly. His passions, other than his business empire, are horses and his collection of old cars.