Why Have We STILL Not Learned the Lessons of Maxwell?

By Bower, Tom | Daily Mail (London), November 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Have We STILL Not Learned the Lessons of Maxwell?


Bower, Tom, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: TOM BOWER

HIS AUTOPSY was as brutal and controversial as his life.

Like a butcher, the Spanish pathologist working in a small, primitive room outside Las Palmas in the Canary Islands slashed the tycoon's corpse without respect either for science or history.

Ten years on, the cause of Robert Maxwell's death whether heart attack, suicide or murder - is still as mysterious as his life and his legacy.

When Maxwell's body was plucked from the calm sea off Gran Canaria, presidents, prime ministers and thousands of celebrities gushingly praised a departed friend - a multilingual master of the universe controlling a media empire worth apparently billions of dollars.

Yet, unseen in the shadows were dozens of Maxwell's bankers, lawyers, accountants and associates who remained silent about an awful truth: that Maxwell was not only bankrupt but had plundered the pension funds and assets of his empire with no ability to repay loans of over [pound]2billion.

Their secret emerged only gradually after a hero's funeral on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives.

Brilliant and brash, Maxwell's life story was never less than incredible.

The son of an impoverished Ruthenian horse smuggler, he had for 50 years deployed ruthless cunning and blatant dishonesty to rank among the world's powerbrokers.

The self-appointed 'Jungle Man', ambitious to become Britain's prime minister, was successively a British Army officer, a KGB and MI6 spy, the founder of a major scientific publishing company, a Labour MP, an active City speculator, Britain's biggest printer, the owner of a media empire and the guest of many political leaders.

That extraordinary record, accomplished with a billionaire's jet-set lifestyle, cannot be simply dismissed as a crook's career.

Instead, today, on the 10th anniversary of his death, Maxwell's achievements as well as his crimes need to be reassessed. Was the self-styled 'publisher' simply a tyrannical racketeer, or was he a man with an inspired vision - albeit a vision he failed to realise without resorting to fraud?

And what of his legacy? Has Britain's culture of complacency - which was so ruthlessly exploited by Maxwell during his lifetime - continued after his death? Were no lessons learned?

Some would argue that Maxwell was too original to bequeath any lessons.

Certainly, during his last months jetting around the globe in his Gulfstream, sailing on his yacht Lady Ghislaine or suffering sleepless nights in his penthouse in Holborn, his life was bizarre.

Never was that more apparent than at a meeting in the Kremlin on June 25, 1991, four months before he died. Sitting opposite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Maxwell raised a topic intended to cure his financial plight.

'Kenyan coffee' was the codename for his astonishing proposition.

Capitalising on the world's fear of sexually transmitted Aids, Maxwell offered to buy vast supplies of tested human blood from Russia for resale in the West.

As a long-trusted informant to the KGB, Maxwell's suggestion was guaranteed consideration by a puzzled Gorbachev. And though it remained unresolved before his departure, it showed he was fighting demonically for survival to the end.

In the hours after leaving Moscow, Maxwell reported the political content of his Kremlin conversation to senior officials and ministers in Washington, Paris, Bonn and London. None suspected that other calls to his son Kevin concerned his frauds.

In return for cash from British, French, Swiss and American banks, the Maxwells offered share certificates owned by their pension funds and by their public company, Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC).

Since each share certificate bore the name of a pension fund or MCC, their ownership was never in doubt but, greedy for the business, the bankers ignored such details. …

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