Tom Bower: the biographer as big-game hunter

A former BBC investigative journalist turned biographer, Bower is drawn to chronicle the big egos that try to dominate the world around them.

Instincts of a newshound: Bower thrives on holding powerful people to account through his incendiary biographies. Photo: Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures.

Is there a thread that links the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie to the pop impresario Simon Cowell, that binds the Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to the Labour MP and former New Statesman owner Geoffrey Robinson, and runs through the newspaper proprietors Conrad Black, Richard Desmond and Robert Maxwell, as well as the business tycoons Richard Branson and Mohamed Al Fayed?

Tom Bower, the investigative journalist who has written unflinching, unflattering biographies of all nine men, thinks so. His subjects – perhaps better thought of as his victims – share “an overriding ambition to succeed, a ruthlessness to prevent those who are stopping you get to your goal, and the most astonishing ego”, he tells me. “If they allow defeat to overwhelm them they’re lost, they are of absolutely no interest to me. I’m interested in people who overcome adversity, whose ego is so dominant that even when, like Maxwell and Black, they are actually convicted, they still say they are innocent.”

When Bower’s biography of Cowell was published in 2012, Cowell told guests at the launch party for the book that he had spent a week hiding under a pillow in his bedroom. This was an unusually mild reaction: as Bower observed at the time, none of the 20 other people he’d written about had ever turned up to celebrate publication. Maxwell took out a multimillion-pound libel suit against Bower (it lapsed). So did Black, Branson and Desmond, and all three lost – with the exception of Black, whose libel trial was put on hold when the media mogul was jailed for fraud in 2007. Another victim of Bower’s investigations said he wanted to break his fingers to stop him working. Writing in the New Statesman in 2001, Robinson described Bower as “messianic, almost to the extent of being unbalanced”.

I meet Bower at an Italian café in Hampstead, north London, close to the home he shares with his wife, Veronica Wadley, a former editor of the Evening Standard and close confidante of Boris Johnson (a man who is surely a worthy candidate for Bower’s cross hairs).

At 67, Bower is battle-hardened: he still has his trademark moustache but his hair has turned white-grey and wispy. He arrives looking distracted, and is wearing a slightly too large brown leather jacket, which he doesn’t take off. He sits down awkwardly in front of me, as if poised to leave at any moment. He may have made a living dredging the darkest depths of other people’s lives, but he doesn’t like to give interviews about his own. “I never talk about myself,” he says. “Part of the problem is that if the journalist is an ego-tripper himself he becomes a victim of the very thing he’s trying to criticise about others.” He speaks quietly, in a low drawl. Several times he asks me to check my dictaphone is definitely working. He knows that an unrecorded interview is a journalist’s nightmare.

Bower’s most recent book, Branson: Behind the Mask, is the latest front in a 15-year campaign to pierce the Virgin boss’s maverick persona and show that, beyond the PR, there is a calculating, manipulative businessman who (and this, Bower believes, is the most painful revelation) isn’t as rich or successful as he says he is. “Everyone has got to believe he’s a billionaire, but if he’s a billionaire why would he rent out his home on Necker? What other billionaire rents out their home? It’s like a bed and breakfast. It’s ridiculous.” This is Bower’s third Branson biography, and it focuses on the Virgin Galactic project: Branson keeps promising to fly people into space at some forever changing date in the near future but his rockets are unworkable and dangerous, as Bower reveals in quite overwhelming detail.

Behind the Mask had seemed a good place to start the interview, but halfway through my first question Bower interrupts. “Look, what actually is the purpose of the piece?” he asks. I explain I want to understand what motivates him, what drives his dogged pursuit of powerful, dangerous men despite the threats and lawsuits. “Right, let’s start there, then. I am fascinated by power, and the people who exercise power … What do they have, these people?”

Bower’s interest in politics began early. His parents were Jewish refugees who arrived in London from Prague in 1939, and so “politics and history was there with my mother’s milk”. From the 1950s, Bower travelled with his parents, driving past the minefields marking out the Iron Curtain, to Prague and East Germany. “As a child of refugees, I was an outsider,” he concludes, something that he believes helps him understand the men of influence who sought to break into, and control, the British establishment – men such as Maxwell, the Mirror Group chief, a Jewish Czechoslovakian who escaped from Nazi occupation and whose biography he entitled Maxwell: the Outsider.

Bower didn’t fit in at school. He went to the William Ellis comprehensive secondary school in Hampstead, where his classmates were the children of left-wing intellectuals, trade unionists and MPs. Bower was a Conservative. “When I told them [the other boys] that we had to queue for cabbages in East Berlin, they just laughed. They didn’t believe it.” It wasn’t until he went to university that he realised another way in which he would stand apart from many he met in his professional life: “I never understood the British establishment until much, much later. Because I was educated at state schools around here, that came as a bit of a shock. I didn’t realise until I got to the LSE what public school really meant.”

The London School of Economics, where Bower studied law in the late Sixties, was, in his view, “one of the best places to be educated in the world”. (But it’s gone downhill now, “thanks to the idiots that became its directors”, he mutters.) Inspired by the 1968 student revolt, and some of his teachers, Bower became a Marxist. His political views have changed since then, although he remains left-wing and says the Marxist analysis of the law – that it exists primarily to protect property, rather than individual rights – “influenced me for life”.

On leaving the LSE, he became a barrister working for the National Council for Civil Liberties, a forerunner of Shami Chakrabarti’s advocacy group, Liberty. It seemed to me an unlikely choice for an instinctive newshound, but then he mentions that his father had wanted him to become a solicitor. Was this why he joined the Bar? He says no, but he did leave shortly afterwards. “It was so class-ridden and depressing, and I realised what I really wanted to do was see things and travel and write about things.”

He joined the BBC in 1970 as a researcher on 24 Hours, a forerunner to Newsnight, and stayed at the corporation until 1995. The cut-throat, competitive atmosphere appealed to him. “They always used to say that at the BBC everyone was stabbed in the chest so you could see them squirm,” he says happily. While he worked on the flagship investigative programme Panorama, competing documentaries would be cut in adjacent rooms on Sunday nights and the editor would patrol the corridor until the early morning, before deciding which one should be broadcast on Monday. “It was tough, but we’re all good friends, most of us.” A friend of his told me that Bower was considered notoriously difficult to work with, but was a “brilliant journalist”.

He left the BBC disillusioned. John Birt, the director general from 1992 to 2000, “emasculated the BBC’s journalism and it never recovered”, he says. The last straw was when Bower was making a film about Maxwell and the lawyers softened his programme without his knowledge. Meanwhile, he says, the BBC had – again, without telling him – commissioned a more flattering programme on the Maxwell brothers, using some of his footage. “I’d made 200 films, some great, great documentaries, great investigative stuff, and I realised then that was impossible.”

He is scathing about the BBC today: its “obsession with process”, its shoddy camerawork and the likes of Newsnight – “the most dreadful programme, because it all the time has these films of people screaming at you”. He believes presenters such as Jeremy Paxman “ruin” their documentary series by spending too much time in front of the camera: “That’s why people are bored with television.”

Bower’s general view of journalism is no more favourable. The newspapers have lost their confidence since the hacking scandal, he says, and the UK’s strict libel laws need further reform. “The only reason we have any journalism at all in Britain is … Rupert Murdoch; he’s the only person who invests in journalism in Britain,” he says. The Mail originally agreed to serialise Bower’s Branson book but pulled out despite paying for it, so the Times bought it instead, he adds by way of evidence.

I get the impression that at times Bower feels he’s one man against the world. He vehemently criticises what he calls the trend for “spokesman broadcasting”: “They just look for someone who can say a preordained argument. They are not interested in looking for the person who doesn’t want to speak, and has to be persuaded to speak because it’s not in their interest – that’s my genre.” Bower can claim to have mastered the difficult interview. His trick to finding out uncomfortable truths about the rich and the powerful is to hunt down their victims – “because when they climb the greasy pole, they always hurt people” – and then persuade them to speak. Only Simon Cowell and Bernie Ecclestone co-operated with him on the writing of their biographies, but he won’t do another like that again. “I prefer looking from the outside,” he says.

Conrad Black once described Bower as “sadistic” (along with a string of other invectives) – and there is a sense that he derives a special pleasure when one of his books wounds its subject: when Branson lost the Lottery bid he so desired after Bower’s first biography, when Robinson was suspended from parliament, when David Cameron instructed the Tory party to read Bower’s character assassination of Gordon Brown. He often draws a distinction between his ego-tripping, power-hungry subjects and himself – but the line seems more blurred to me. Perhaps he feels motivated by a higher sense of purpose, the advancement of a truth bigger than himself. And yet, at one point, he says: “I’m always suspicious when people talk about morality. People in power talking about morality is the greatest giveaway of dishonesty and deceit.”

Bower thrives on risk. “Journalism depends on risk,” he says. In a 2009 diary for the Guardian on his court hearing for the Richard Desmond libel case, he described how “the daily commute on the London Underground to star in a libel trial was an unexpected relief from the customary ten hours in my study”.

Is he really so blasé, or is it a front? He says he has good lawyers and is always careful. “I’m never overconfident, but I get depressed if I don’t get the support. And in the end the support is that people buy the book and are interested.” His bestselling title was Maxwell: the Outsider, which sold over 150,000 copies.

Bower has been chased down the street by Nazi agents, and there was a “Mossad man who once tried … but he failed”, he recalls cheerfully. He says his emails are constantly being hacked, although he’s not sure by whom. Then I remind him of the time he was beaten up on camera by a sheep farmer he had exposed on Panorama for exporting live sheep – an investigation that earned him an RSPCA silver medal. He laughs heartily at the memory; it’s the happiest I have seen him.

His next project is a biography of Tony Blair: “he’s influenced all of our lives … With Thatcher, you knew much more; nothing has come out about her which remains an enigma any more. You got what you saw. With Blair, it’s not like that.”

He says one day he might write his autobiography – he has kept all his notebooks from a career spanning five decades. In most of Bower’s biographies, he homes in on a defining trait that he argues captures the essence of the character: Cowell is fundamentally motivated by “sweet revenge”, Maxwell is the “outsider”, Black is “dancing on the edge”, Branson is “99.9 per cent business”. So how, I ask, would Tom Bower characterise his own life?

“A friend of mine says I should write an autobiography called Dancing With Scoundrels,” he replies with a rare smile.