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

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.
 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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