WHERE THE TRUTH LIES
Portrait of a Liar
'HERE INDEED is the definitive biography of one of the most extraordinary men of our century.' So reads the publisher's blurb for Maxwell, The Definitive Biography. The publisher is MacDonald (Owner: Robert Maxwell), the author is Joe Haines (Owner: Robert Maxwell), and extracts from the book have appeared in editions of the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror (Owner: Robert Maxwell). The book itself is 608 pages long, with 48 pages of black and white plates from Mr Maxwell's archives, which means in conventional publishers' terms it must have cost a fortune to produce. Macdonald, however is no conventional publisher since it is owned by 'one of the most extraordinary men of the century'.
According to the publicity material sent to the book trade, no less than ￡500,000 is to be spent on promotion for the 'biography of the year', the publisher's mark-up is 35% so that, if you ignore the fee for serialisation which comes out of Maxwell's other pocket at the Mirror, it will have to sell 60,000 hardback copies just to cover the promotion budget. In short, it is probably safe to say that Maxwell, The Definitive Biography is the biggest vanity publishing exercise in history.
But the vanity doesn't stop there. Joe Haines writes in his Preface that, apart from his own fee as writer, all proceeds from the book, including 'those for film and television rights', will go to the Maxwell Foundation. This Foundation, located in the tax-haven of Liechtenstein, was called the Pergamon Holding Foundation until Maxwell renamed it after himself - a monument to the vanity of a man who last year changed the name of his British Printing and Communications Corporation to Maxwell Communications Corporation.
Joe Haines, author of The Definitive Biography and Maxwell employee on the staff of the Mirror, worships his master's God-like omnipotence with dog-like obedience. Yet, ironically, he once write an important and interesting book called The Politics Of Power, based on his experience as press secretary to Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Its theme was the corrupting nature of power, and it candidly detailed various abuses of the Wilson administrations, most notably the Herodias-like role of Marcia Williams and the cynical abuse of the honours system culminating in the 1976 resignation honours list, drawn up by Marcia on her lavender notepaper.
Haines was especially disapproving of Harold and Marcia's decision to bestow peerages and knighthoods on wealthy businessmen who had given generously to Labour Party funds. This being so, one might expect Haines to import a certain degree of cynicism to the biographical treatment of such an obvious wielder of power as Maxwell especially since, as Haines himself admits in his Preface, 'when Maxwell was bidding to take over the Mirror Group I was his most open adversary'.
However, the Preface doesn't detail the u-turn he made following Maxwell's success in securing the Mirror Group, a u-turn exposed in John Pilger's book Heroes. According to Pilger, Haines told an NUJ chapel meeting that he would have to be "dragged through the door to work for a crook and a monster like Robert Maxwell". In the event, he walked through the door of his own free will and within days had accepted promotion from the erstwhile 'crook and monster'. He had seen the light, presumably that which emitted from Maxwell's posterior.
The vileness of this volte-face must cause one to call into question the motives behind Haines' earlier exposé of Wilson's Government. It seems unlikely that a cynical sycophant like Haines could ever write anything inspired by an indignant idealism shocked by the corrupt use of power.
Perhaps his motives were more base. Perhaps he had always been more comfortable as a courtier than as a rebel, and his righteous indignation about Wilson's abuse of power had more to do with being slighted by his patron and passed over for a more valued courtier in the shape of Marcia Williams.
Haines's status as Maxwell's principal toady is illustrated amusingly by two anecdotes related in Maxwell, A Portrait in Power by Peter Thompson and Anthony Delano (Bantam Press ￡12.95). Ex-Mirror hack Terence Lancaster encountered Haines in the Gay Hussar restaurant and said that he had seen him on television. A flattered Haines asked whether Lancaster was referring to Quesion Time on which he had recently apeared, 'No, the Nine o' Clock News,' replied Lancaster. 'You were carrying Maxwell's bags at Glasgow airport.'
On another occasion Harold Wilson, surrounded by a group of journalists at dinner, spotted Haines, notebook balanced on his knee, scribbling urgently as Maxwell dictated. "He used to work for me," Wilson chuckled. "He didn't move so fast in those days...”
Maxwell, The Definitive Biography is a misnomer. This is an official, sanitised excuse of a biography - the sort that would normally cause Joe Haines, the self-styled tabloid radical, to reach - à la Hermann Goring - for his revolver. Instead, he has listened to His Master's Voice. He has been afraid to ask any searching questions.
As he admits in his preface, "any ommissions of episodes in Maxwell's career are my responsibility". As such, Haines must accept the blame for this weak-kneed whitewash which is anything but the 'definitive biography' it purports to be.
For a more definitive view of Maxwell, one which shows the warts beneath the whitewash, we need to peruse the unofficial biographies, two of which were published at the same time as Haines's effort, namely Maxwell, A Portrait in Power, alluded to earlier, and Maxwell, The Outsider by Tom Bower (Aurum Press ￡12.95). These two biographies may not call Maxwell a liar but they both conclude that Maxwell is a compulsive trimmer and embellisher of the truth - a trait which was noted by the Department of Trade and Industry Inspectors when they produced their famous, damning report on Maxwell's Pergamon role in 1970.
In fact, the various euphemisms for lying employed by both books are guaranteed to raise a smile. Bower refers to Maxwell's tendency to romanticise his past, while Thompson and Delano explain that Maxwell has a tendency to 'gild the lily, to magnify facts'.
Other euphemisms for lying include such jargon as 'terminological inexactitude' and 'economical with the truth'. However, the most amusing comment is that of Bruce Page, the Sunday Times 'Insight' journalist who did most to expose Maxwell's feet of clay back in the late 1960's.
Interviewed for the Thompson and Delano book, Page recalls: 'We came to realise we were dealing with a man who did not have a commonplace perception of what might constitute a fact.' Candidly, speaking as one who believes in calling a spade a spade, Maxwell is a compulsive liar!
The theme of mendacity is a recurring one throughout both books and it starts with Maxwell's war years. “In the abbreviated biography he now issues,” writes Thompson and Delano, “he describes himself as having been wounded and captured in the battle for France - an event in which he does not seem to have been allowed to participate...”
“He frequently shows off the spectacular scar on his jowls as the effect of a German bullet... Yet companions-in-arms from both the Czech and British armies cannot recall his being wounded.”
Bower, too, has some intriguing examples of Maxwell's revisionist' approach to his personal history. Maxwell claims, for instance, and the Haines book parrots his claim, to have joined the Czech underground; to have been captured, tortured, sentenced to death, and reprieved because he was a juvenile; and subsequently to have escaped. Yet Bower shows that this is extremely unlikely. It conflicts with historical knowledge about the period, and also with the less heroic account of his departure from his homeland that he told to his cousin Alex Pearl in 1945.
Later, of course, this capacity for fantasy, impelled by his rampant ego, would lead Maxwell further afield. For example, when he toured the world in 1967 to promote his Pergamon encyclopaedias he announced false sales figures for publicity's sake.
Bower quotes a Pergamon executive, Philip Okill, who was asked by Maxwell why he didn't seem to like or trust his flamboyant boss. “Because you're the sincerest liar I've ever met”, replied Okill who recalls that Maxwell laughed “because I genuinely think he took it as one of the nicest compliments l could have paid him.”
The Pergamon-Leasco affair (1969-74) remains at the centre of Maxwell's life if only because the DTI Inspectors' report correctly diagnosed his persistent traits of reckless optimism and untruthfulness. He lied to his shareholders, including the American company Leasco which was bidding for Pergamon, by reporting inflated profits.
Robert Maxwell - Corrupt egomaniac and one of the most powerful controllers of the news in Britain.
Maxwell's own version of this affair, via his Haines mouthpiece, is naturally self-justifying. He repeats his previously oft-repeated claim that the Inspectors' report, stating that he was unfit to be the steward of a public company, was subsequently 'rebutted' and that his role was vindicated in the courts.
If this were so (which it isn't), why did the Maxwell family pay 5 million dollars to Leasco in settlement of a US civil fraud suit in 1974, as Bower's book reveals for the first time since an obscure contemporary announcement in the New York Times?
So there we have it. A perusal of Maxwell's past and personality reveals a character who lies, cheats and cons his way to the top driven by an egomania bordering on insanity and founded on inanity. Yet neither of these good biographies, without mentioning Haines's nauseatingly bad one, address themselves to a question which begs, nay screams for, an answer: How can a proven liar, conman and crook become the owner of some of the biggest selling newspapers in the country?
The answer lies in the sickness of the system in which we live, a system where gold is god. Such a system demands that even the right to relay news and information belongs to the highest bidder, and since Maxwell is the highest bidder even the news now does his bidding.
In short Maxwell has bought a Mirror which only reflects the things he wishes the public to see. And there, to employ a double entendre, is where the truth lies.