Right now, even the recent past seems a foreign country, and the future a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a protective mask. But it has always been the case that what once seemed settled can soon appear a very contradiction of the truth.
Robert Maxwell and Private Eye were never destined to get along. One a publisher and politician who was not necessarily a stranger to controversy, but certainly a dear friend of bombastic self-promotion; the other a magazine noted for taking against exactly such a person, and whose editor until late 1986 was Richard Ingrams, a man with a habit of putting in stories about those he disapproved of without, perhaps, overzealous diligence – or as he put it: ‘If we were convinced that the story was true we would put it in.’
This often led Ingrams and Private Eye to the libel courts, and few were more litigious than Maxwell, even as a publisher himself, most notably of the Mirror Group after 1984. And two years after that purchase, Private Eye and Maxwell had their most famous tangle. A story suggesting that the former Labour MP has secretly funded a visit by leader Neil Kinnock to Africa – and implying that Maxwell was hoping for a peerage in return – resulted in an action in which Private Eye ended up paying an unusually high £55,000 in damages and incurring expenses of an estimated £250,000.
The trial itself had an afterlife – the Eye itself brought out a special Christmas edition costing £1 rather than 45p in order to raise funds, while Maxwell responded with Not Private Eye, a one-off spoof he attempted to persuade major newsagents to supply instead of the original, only for it to be notoriously sabotaged by Peter Cook.
Also published was Malice in Wonderland, the book of the trial under the byline of one Robert Maxwell.
In fact, Maxwell’s contribution is a 37-page introduction and brief epilogue, with most the book taken up by a court report by Daily Mirror stalwart John Jackson. Whether Maxwell’s words are all his own work or ghosted by the newspaper’s deputy editor, and ex-Harold Wilson spin doctor, Joe Haines, listed as the book’s editor, one cannot say. But it lays out Maxwell’s clear offence at the reporting in the Eye.
He reprints the offending article, which suggests that Maxwell is to pay for Kinnock to tour Africa, having previously footed the bills – according to the Eye – for visits to Moscow and Central America, the latter after ‘the international charity War on Want backed-off for publicity reasons’. They conclude: ‘How many more Kinnock freebies will Maxwell have to provide before he is recommended for a peerage?’
A fortnight later, the Eye published denials from Kinnock’s press secretary, the future cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt, and also Maxwell himself. That letter is reprinted, beginning ‘Dear Mr Ingram’ (Maxwell describing the spelling error as ‘inadvertent’) and demanding a ‘retraction, suitable apology’ – which he helpfully drafts – ‘and to pay £30,000 to the Mirror’s Ethiopia Appeal Fund’, with a threat to issue libel proceedings if not.
That threat was enough for the Mail on Sunday, who had repeated the story, to cough up £5,000. But Private Eye instead published a further piece reporting that Maxwell had demanded that Kinnock show up at a party to mark the first anniversary of him buying the Mirror, threatening otherwise not to report on the ‘Africa junket, which Maxwell lamely denies financing’.
Not for the first time, Maxwell asked for an injunction to stop the sale of that edition; then, when denied, threatened wholesalers like WH Smith and John Menzies with legal action if they distributed it, and finally decided that ‘battle against the Eye was now inevitable’, on the basis that he was accused of ‘bribing Mr Kinnock for the purpose of obtaining a peerage… an allegation of criminal offence’.
Having introduced the case, Maxwell goes on to quote at length a 1982 Listener review of a book about Private Eye. The tome was sympathetic to the magazine; the review was not, unsurprisingly as it was authored by Captain Ian Robert Maxwell MC (already a successful litigant against the fortnightly in 1975).
‘Does it really make a valuable contribution to our society,’ thundered Maxwell, ‘to destroy both in our own eyes, and that of the world at large, our major national asset of incorruptibility in public life – to replace it by a belief that the instincts of the piggery motivate our public servants and successful entrepreneurs?’ Mentioning no former MPs or high-profile businessmen, obviously.
It is clear Maxwell couldn’t agree with himself more:
I concluded my review in The Listener – and I repeat it not for reasons of self-publicity but because it foreshadowed the action of November 1986 – in these words: ‘I cannot help feeling that Mr Ingrams carries within his morose self a death-wish. Sooner or later he will risk everything on a major protracted libel battle in the belief that the best way for him and the Eye to go down is with all its malicious guns blazing.’
After finding validation in his own words from years earlier in The Listener, Maxwell gets down to a perfunctory summary of the case, and in particular his own two-day cross examination, with detours to bemoan the lack of state funding for political parties and the inefficiency of clients having to employ solicitors to in turn instruct barristers (arrangements which have outlived Maxwell considerably).
Maxwell then hands over to the court report itself, by John Jackson (self-described as ‘Fleet Street’s Chief Rotter’), which goes into some detail and largely avoids tabloid flourishes except in the second paragraph, which introduces us to the jurors and specifically ‘one woman, built like busty Carry On actress Barbara Windsor’.
Spread throughout are photos of those involved in the case – Maxwell, Ingrams, Kinnock – but also seemingly random public figures of the day: trade unionist Clive Jenkins on a picket line, newspaper editor Harold Evans, conductor Andre Previn, businessman James Goldsmith. These, as we discover in Appendix 1: The ‘Litany of Lies’ are among the fifty-three public figures to whom in the previous ten years the Eye had to either apologise or pay damages. Presumably this was intended as a final flourish to stick the boot into the magazine – it’s certainly a tribute to Ingrams’ ‘put it in’ approach to controversial articles – but the effect is more to expose the spirit of bitter revenge in which the book was conceived, rather than the story of justice served.
This is further emphasised by the bizarre cartoons on the inside covers, which range from crude (Richard Ingrams pictured wearing a blazer, shirt and hat but nothing else, with ‘Satire – God bless it’ emerging from his buttocks) to triumphalist (a hedgehog with the face of Maxwell running over the Eye’s knight mascot Gnitty) to inexplicable (Margaret Thatcher holding an ace of spades).
This extends to the cover image itself, based not too subtly on the Private Eye Story book that Maxwell had reviewed in 1982 – rather than Gnitty toasting the scalps of the fallen politicians of the day, a slimline and be-armoured Maxwell is celebrating beneath trophies of the leading figures on the magazine: Ingrams, his designated successor Ian Hislop (he took over not long before the trial), Peter Cook, managing director David Cash and reporter Christopher Silvester, who authored the offending article.
In the full report of the trial, Day 3 stands out, as Maxwell gives evidence. He tells his extraordinary life story, and recounts his history with Private Eye. This includes his previous successful actions against the magazine, notably a 1983 case when Maxwell took exception to being portrayed as a lookalike of Ronnie Kray, which was notable for Cook sitting in the public gallery happily waving his chequebook at the plaintiff.
He also remembers another of their lookalikes, in which the Duke of Edinburgh was compared to Adolf Eichmann, the letter signed ‘Ena B Maxwell’. Since Maxwell had been born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch, and – save for two sisters – was the only member of his Jewish family to survive the Holocaust, subsequently joining the British Army with some distinction and adopting a new name, he had good cause to break down in tears. He was not always a man who demanded sympathy, however on the subject of the Shoah his sense of loss was sincere and immense.
The case moves on (the judge later brings up the incident in the summing up only to point out that it had ‘nothing to do with the case’ and that the jury ‘would accept Mr Ingrams’ evidence that he had no knowledge of Maxwell’s early life’), but the scene is a reminder that Maxwell was more than just the fraudster and egoist that history mainly records – he did really come from the least promising origins possible and went on to an extraordinary position in public life.
Nevertheless, in case we are not sure how distinguished Robert Maxwell Esq MC is, there are – handily scattered among the pages of the book – tokens of Royal appreciation: a reproduction of a 1986 letter from the Queen’s private secretary promising that ‘Her Majesty will treasure’ a Royal Wedding souvenir book published to raise funds for the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, and a Mirror front-page photo of their publisher and Prince Charles enjoying a Red Devils display while young Prince William stares amazed, seemingly at Maxwell himself.
As for the case itself, the defendants do not necessarily seek to establish the truth of their story but argue that there was no malice intended, and that ‘lots of people have been kicked too hard by Mr Maxwell … not a reputation that merits large damages – very much the reverse’ as their barrister puts it his final speech. The jury have other ideas and award Maxwell a total of £5,000 compensation for the two articles and a virtually unprecedented £50,000 exemplary damages. In addition, the Eye had to meet costs of around £250,000.
Maxwell, magnanimous in victory as he addressed the media, dubbed Private Eye ‘liars and peddlers of filth for profit’ and pledged the cash to charity: ‘It comes from an infected organ so it is appropriate it should go to AIDS.’
He continues his theme in the brief epilogue to the book. ‘Private Eye was always a cheap champagne. Now it has finally gone flat,’ Maxwell begins. He admits that its circulation is actually at an all-time high but ‘its decline has set in… because there is a changing mood in this country’.
Maxwell compared its approach to ‘loosing off a shotgun at every football match’ and said ‘its articles rarely contain a whole truth’. It was ‘the Joe McCarthy of British journalism’ but like the Senator himself ‘it has at last received its come-uppance’. Could its libel insurers or distributors remain loyal?
It’s true there was a bit of a drop-off from the record circulation figures of 250,000 recorded the month after the trial, but Private Eye of course did not disappear despite an even bigger libel defeat in 1989 that threatened their future (though it was reduced on appeal and helped turn the tide against damages inflation), as well as the death of owner and chequebook-wielder Cook in 1995.
Hislop has remained at the helm, and the magazine has in recent years got its circulation back up to around 240,000, including 150,000 subscribers, rather against the trend for print publications. Private Eye’s reputation has not quite sunk to the level of Joe McCarthy.
As for Maxwell, exactly five years after he stepped into the witness box on 5 November 1986, he fell from his yacht to his death, and within days it became clear that he had orchestrated a £460 million fraud, plundering the Mirror’s pension funds trying to keep his debt-laden media business afloat. The mood of the country toward him certainly changed, or at least was confirmed.
If the worst thing that could be said about Robert Maxwell was that his financial support for the Labour Party in the 1980s (regardless of whether he paid for a specific leader’s trip) was in the legally dubious hope of obtaining a peerage, then his posthumous reputation would be much enhanced from where it has sat in the three decades since his death.
The fact that he would choose to celebrate a libel victory with a gloating hardback, while hardly the greatest of his crimes, hardly disproves the argument made by the Eye’s lawyer that suggested Maxwell’s reputation was that of a self-promoting bully.
Malice In Wonderland was written as a celebration of Maxwell – who was then probably at the peak of his fame and influence – and of his routing of Private Eye. It now can only be read as an exercise in hubris, authored by the ultimate villain of the piece, while the supposed bad boys have found continued success and possibly even the respectability that Maxwell craved but never was able to achieve. What we know now pervades every word Maxwell wrote and adds a darkly comic twist to the tale as told contemporarily.
And perhaps those charged with knocking the book into shape did so with the same lack of enthusiasm that the Mirror editor Mike Molloy brought to Not Private Eye, of which he said (with Maxwell safely dead): ‘We knocked up some Soviet-style insults, copied the look of the Eye and called the publication Not Private Eye. When he saw the proofs, Maxwell was delighted with our schoolboy efforts.’
That this book, with its eerie back-page photo of the editorial team captioned in correct socialist style as ‘representatives of the workforce at [Mirror HQ] Holborn Circus’, reflects not so well on its supposed hero is plainly of no comfort to the victims of Maxwell’s financial jiggery-pokery. But, like m’colleague Alwyn Turner’s surveys of contemporary press pen-pics of politicians at various stages in their careers, the joy of reading this otherwise entirely obsolete recycling of innocent trees is that we know what happened next, while the oblivious author has no idea of the extent to which his own words, written in defiant self-justification, only serve to self-incriminate.