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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Roy Hattersley: Labour is far closer to extinction now than in the 1980s

 If the takeover of the party by the far-left succeeds there will be no opportunity to rescue it from the wilder shores of socialism, says the former deputy leader.

The comparison with the Eighties is irresistible but misconceived. Labour is far closer to extinction as a major party than it was 35 years ago. That is not because Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of leading the party to victory — although he is. Nor is it because his supporters threaten the political assassination of anyone who says so — although they do. It is because, for the first time in its history, Labour is in real danger of a permanent domination by the unrepresentative and unelectable left.

All the other regular crises in the party’s history — German rearmament, nuclear disarmament, the defection of the Gang of Four to found the SPD — were resolved by mistakes being rectified, resolutions reversed and Labour resuming its place in the mainstream of British politics. Nor was there any genuine risk that the infiltrators from the far left would play a decisive part in national policy making. The Militant Tendency controlled municipal politics in Liverpool and attempted, with mixed success, to unseat vulnerable mainstream MP’s. But there was no possibility of them subverting the whole party. Now the far left operating through Momentum  aspires to make a decisive, and irreversible shift in Labour’s core ideology by initiating a purge of mainstream Labour MPs and a cull of headquarters office staff, reducing the part that the parliamentary party plays in choosing the leader and making the election manifesto the preserve of the annual conference. If the putsch — described by its instigators as an extension of party democracy — succeeds, there will be no opportunity for a latter day Neil Kinnock to rescue Labour from the wilder shores of socialism and the odds on its survival lengthen.

The crisis could have been averted. The parliamentary party  with the exception of a handful of residual Blairites  is ready for some sort of compromise. That is why, three weeks ago, it gave its overwhelming support to the proposal that the shadow cabinet should be elected by Labour MPs rather than chosen by the leader. The change was intended to allow an honourable return to the front bench for the shadow ministers who resigned in the spring. As a move towards unity, it is no more than papering over the cracks but better that than gaping fractures. Although Corbyn had neither the sense nor the grace immediately to accept the gesture of conciliation, the choice between an uneasy peace and continued guerrilla warfare still lies with him. If — as his victory speech suggests — he regards last Saturday’s victory as a mandate to impose his sectarian will on the party, the battle is likely end with mutual self-destruction.

Even if Jeremy Corbin succeeds in his attempts to create a permanent far-left hegemony, the Labour Party is unlikely to split as it did 30 years ago . The fate of the SDP — absorption into a Liberal Party which kept the Tory-led coalition in office or defiant independence that ended in the ignominy of polling fewer by-election votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party — has dampened enthusiasm for a breakaway movement. Nor are there charismatic potential leaders who stand ready to lead their followers into battle in the way that Roy Jenkins and David Owen (the Fidel Castro and Che Guevara of social democracy) marched a dozen Labour MPs into the valley of political death. But a futile attempt to form a new party would at least imply the hope of some sort ofresurrection. The more likely outcome would be the product of pure despair — the parliamentary Labour party would not divide and instead would begin slowly to disintegrate.

If the worst happens some Labour MPs will suddenly discover previously undetected virtues in Corbyn and Corbynism and line up behind him. Others will grow weary of being abused by local extremists and fade away. Contrary to public opinion, most MPs could earn more from less demanding jobs outside parliament. The politically dedicated, determined to be candidates in the next election, will accept the challenge of reselection. More will succeed than fail, but the harm to the party’s reputation will be immense.

One feature of the 1980 desertion will certainly be replicated. When the Gang of Four defected, the damage done by the loss of glamorous leadership was more than matched by the loss of hard working membership. If Labour MPs begin to believe that the battle for reason and recovery is no longer worth fighting the disenchantment will become infectious. Jeremy Corbyn’s devotees would still turn out for the rallies. But the enthusiasm with which they would tramp the streets on rainy nights, or spend boring weekends telephoning target voters, is in doubt. Reliance on the notion that the election can be won online is the refuge of politicians who either have not identified or do not understand the floating voters.

The haemorrhage has already begun — increased by the behaviour of recently recruited Corbynites who do not seem to have heard that their hero has an olive tree outside his office door. All over the country they are bullying and filibustering their way into the control of local parties — excoriating mainstream members, manipulating the rules of debate and postponing votes until late in the evening. Of course, the men and women who oppose them could play the same game. But they are, by their nature, reasonable people and they want to lead reasonable lives. That is why they represent the sort of Labour Party with which voters can identify. 

Unfortunately, many of the Labour MPs who should have led the campaign to recreate an electable party have spent the last year either sulking or complaining. They have been anti Corbyn but pro very little. Owen Smith’s leadership campaign ended in disaster not because of the size of the incumbent’s votes but because of the challenger’s failure to set out an alternative vision of the society that socialists hope to create. Angela Eagle would have won fewer votes, but she would come closer to reassuring party members that "moderates" (a deadening description which should be abandoned) have principles and policies. A campaign that relied on nothing except the obvious truth that Jeremy Corbyn would lead Labour to defeat was doomed from the start. A majority of the party members who joined before 2015 voted for Smith. Think of how many more would have done the same had he offered them more to vote for than disapproval of his opponent.

Corbyn, and many of the Corbynites, are unmoved by the evidence that they are heading straight to defeat. That is, in part, because Corbyn himself is in what psychiatrists call “total denial.” There were times last year when he seemed to be implementing a carefully coordinated plan to alienate all the middle-of-road voters on whose support a Labour victory depends. He has proposed the unilateral abandonment of the British nuclear deterrent, refused to back Britain’s continued membership of the European Single Market and defended his historic association with apologists for terrorism — all items on the curriculum vitae of a Labour leader who might have been invented by Conservative Central Office. No political leader in British history has been so careless about his party’s prospects at the ballot box. But that is only one of the reasons why the threat of defeat will do little to halt the party's leftward gallop.

There is, within the ranks of Corbyn supporters, a substantial number of activists who — since they do not believe that parliamentary democracy can create the socialist Utopia of their dreams — regard the election of a Labour Government as an irrelevance. Indeed they believe that a prolonged period of Tory misrule will bring forward the day when a spontaneous uprising will herald the new dawn. It is near to inconceivable that Corbyn believes in such millenarian nonsense. But he appear to subscribe to the equally fatuous view that the first task is to make Labour a genuinely socialist party and that winning elections can wait until it is accomplished.

That is clearly the view of those correspondents to the New Statesman who complain about Corbyn’s critics obsession with what they call “electablity”. It is easy for their cynics to sneer about putting power before principle, but winning is a matter of principle too. Labour exists to make those changes in society which can only be achieved in power. In 2016 the fight — to quote the former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1962 — is less about saving “the party we love” than about rescuing the nation from long years of  Tory bigotry. To behave in a way which diminishes — indeed for a time extinguishes — Labour’s chance of fulfilling its historic purpose is worse than self indulgent. It is betrayal.

There are major figures in the current drama of the Labour Party whose attitude towards the prospect of government is both inexcusable and incomprehensible. Chief among them is Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite and a man whose every bombastic television appearance is worth thousands of votes to the Tories. The members he represents have the strongest possible vested interest in a Labour victory at the next election. Yet many of his policies and pronouncements — particularly his risibly unsuccessful attempts to bully MPs into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership — contribute to the Conservatives’ opinion poll lead and increases the danger of massive defeat at the next election turning into total destruction.

Anyone who doubts that Labour could be reduced to the status of the Liberal Democrats or the Greens — struggling for influence without even hoping for power — should be sent to canvas for the party in Scotland. But the near oblivion north of the border is not yet inevitable in the south. Recovery will take time and before Labour can begin effectively to deal with the challenges from outside the party it must struggle back into the mainstream of politics — a process which has to begin with an acceptance that Jeremy Corbyn’s first election was more than a combination of the Peasants’ Revolt and the Children’s Crusade. For many of the men and women who voted for the first time in 2015 his victory represented the end of a decade of disillusion. At first they had felt no more than disappointment at opportunities that successive Blair Governments missed — their delight in the landslide victory of 1997 fading away until it was finally extinguished on the battlefields of Iraq.

The Peak District village in which I live is home to more Labour party members than the tourists may imagine. Two of them  —  a retired bank manager and an emeritus professor of cardiac surgery — voted for Corbyn in 2015. In part they were motivated by a desire to “give socialism a chance for once.” But they also thought that they were drawing a line under the years of “the third way” and triangulation. New Labour, in which they had once devoutly believed, had come to mean private enterprise edging its way into the health service, the surreptitious extension of secondary selection and light regulation of the City of London. Jeremy Corbyn, like the Scottish National Party, has much to thank Tony Blair for.

For some people Jeremy Corbyn was, like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, a welcome alternative to the politics of the establishment. To many more he was, by the very nature of his unelectability, the antidote to the opportunism which they (wrongly) believe characterises life in Westminster. Now, a mainstream candidate for the Labour leadership will have to make clear that they are guided not by opinion polls but by a vision of a new and better society. The next leader must concentrate every nerve and sinew on winning, but they must have faith in their ability to carry the country for reasonable revolution.

Unfortunately the members of the Labour mainstream are notoriously reticent about  discussing first principles. They find talk of “the vision thing” embarrassing and believe that the task which faces them is too obvious to need justification by any “fancy theories.” Yet there is a great body of work — by the likes of TH Green, RH Tawney. Anthony Crosland and John Rawls — which set out the theory of democratic socialism and descriptions of why it is especially relevant today – Joseph E Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett — abound. The recovery of reason has to begin with Chukka Umuuna explaining the virtues of equality, Yvette Cooper describing Britain’s obligations to the developing world and Dan Jarvis defining the role of the state in protecting the weak against the strong. Or any of them talking about what they stand for instead of assuming that their convictions are taken for granted. The Daily Mail might not report their speeches, but moderate party members will treat the related Fabian Society pamphlets like water in the desert.

If, as they must, the reasonable majority of Labour MPs choose to stay and fight, they have to organise — inside the parliamentary party and, more importantly in the constituencies. I have spent much recent time insisting, to sceptical friends that the occupants of the opposition back benches are as competent and committed as were members of any of the governments, or shadow governments, in which I served. But I do not even try to argue that they are as active as my contemporaries once were in reclaiming the party. Success and survival depends on the constant demonstration that reasonable radicals still have a home in the Labour Party.  

One refugee from Corbyn’s original shadow cabinet assured me that like-minded Labour MPs do occasionally meet. When I asked what they discussed, I was told that they “wait for something to turn up.” But, something will only turn up if it is prepared and promoted by the men and women who have the courage and commitment to lead Labour out of the wilderness. The journey will be long and hard and there can be no guarantee of arrival at the desired destination. But those of us who believe that Labour can still provide the best prospect of a more equal society have to begin the trek toward the promised land — and we need to set out straight away.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992.