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9 April 2001

Pursued by a man with a mission

Geoffrey Robinson reveals how he twice met his biographer Tom Bower

By Geoffrey Robinson

I first bumped into Tom Bower, whose “investigations” into me have been published in his book, The Paymaster, and serialised in the Daily Mail, at the Labour Party conference in September last year. He approached me, mentioning that he was thinking of writing a book about me. I suggested we meet back in London. He seemed not to hear, so I repeated it twice, putting his lack of comprehension down to the bar being noisy.

He soon contacted me and we arranged to meet for tea on Friday 6 October at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair, London. By this time, friends had told me that Bower was going ahead with his book, and it was clear from what they told me of his approach that his intention was to inflict as much damage on me as possible. His two obsessive interests, they said, were sex and money. So, early on in this first meeting, I suggested to him I might put a gag on my friends. “Oh! Don’t do that,” he replied, “it would make it so much more fun.” It was one of the rare times I saw him smile. Next, I charged him that he was putting it about that he had obtained my consent to his contacting my friends. He vehemently denied that he would ever do such a thing.

He went on to tell me of his pioneering work as a lawyer in the Midlands in the field of industrial injuries. He was for the small man, he said, against the big. He was always scrupulously honest and meticulously accurate. He struck me as messianic, almost to the extent of being unbalanced. “Funny chap!” I noted in my diary.

I brought our meeting to an end by suggesting that, since a lot of the questions he might wish to put to me would be answered in my book (which by sweet irony was to be serialised in the Daily Mail in ten days’ time), we should meet after he had read it. I accompanied him to a taxi rank. He decided not to take a cab and, quite out of the blue, brought up my period as chief executive for Jaguar cars around 30 years ago. “There must have been some hot spots,” he suggested. I was surprised and amused, without much idea of what he would understand by a hot spot.

The next meeting, held at his request, was for breakfast at the Grosvenor House on 7 December. It was a far more tetchy encounter. He refused to eat anything – for fear, I can only imagine, of compromising himself. I remonstrated mildly and he agreed to have a boiled egg.

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The real Bower began to show his colours in the tone and persistence of his questioning. He kept coming back to my book and said that I had raised points and then dropped them without, he thought, fully answering them. I asked for an example and he suggested my contribution to Labour Party funds. I replied that I had fully complied with all the requirements of declaration and the rest was really my business. What other points concerned him? He declined to elaborate. I remarked that he seemed pathetic to me. I could have bitten my tongue off. He is, like most of his genre, an odd personality, but not pathetic.

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I am pretty sure, whether I had met him or not and irrespective of what I said, Bower would have written the same book. Certainly, it offers no case for the defence. And it contains one very big error: the claim that I received a £200,000 payment from Robert Maxwell. On pages 85-6 of the book, Bower writes: “At 5pm on 13 December 1990, Geoffrey Robinson entered Maxwell’s office. He demanded payment of £200,000 . . . On 21 December a cheque drawn on Pergamon was cashed . . . Two hundred thousand pounds had been transferred to Geoffrey Robinson.” The Daily Mail, in its reporting of Bower’s book, added that I had admitted to him that I had been paid the money.

This latter claim is not substantiated in the book. But the book itself gets it wrong in every particular, and most importantly on the date. The cheque was paid on 11 December, as the Pergamon records show, not 21 December. So much for Bower’s reputation for meticulous and accurate research.

So far, nobody has been able to find out where the cheque went. And nobody has made more effort to do so than I. The banking records were destroyed before the DTI investigation started. (There was nothing sinister here; it was routine policy after eight years.) I did not get the money, nor did any company associated with me. If anybody out there can help trace the cheque, please call me and reverse the charges.

On reflection, I should have known better than to meet Bower, who had previously written about Robert Maxwell and Richard Branson. Maxwell, the story goes, put his arm round Bower in the back of his Rolls-Royce and said: “I like you, Tom: you and I are two peas from the same pod.” Branson apparently assured him from his balloon that, when he was back on earth, they would sort it out between them.

Much good it did either of them. At least I had the sense not to try. But I was curious to meet Bower and find out what makes him tick. There is no doubt about his great sense of his own importance and that he sees himself as a force for good in the land. He reminds you of it every few minutes.

It may well be possible to attribute a moral motivation to his early books, and indeed to his work on industrial injuries. But it is hard to see any public interest in the inaccuracies and misrepresentations in his last two ad hominem attacks on public figures. More and more, the books are not taken seriously, and one is forced to question Bower’s motives, suspecting not messiahship but that other “M”, money.

What a pity that investigative journalism has descended so far from the standards set by the Sunday Times Insight team which exposed the thalidomide scandal in the 1970s. Even if I were guilty of what Bower suggests (which I am not), the result, as somebody put it, is “not many dead”.

Book review by Peter Riddell in this issue