Ian Robert Maxwell (June 10, 1923 – November 5, 1991), British media proprietor, rose from poverty to build a great publishing empire, but was revealed after his mysterious death to have been misusing staff pension funds on a massive scale to prop up his ailing empire.
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Robert Maxwell was born Jan Ludvik Hoch in Slatinske Dòly, a small town in what is now the Czech Republic, into a poor Jewish family. In 1939 the area was occupied by Nazi Germany. Most of his family was killed by the Nazis, but he escaped, arriving in Britain in 1940 as a 17-year-old refugee. He joined the British Army, where his intelligence and gift for languages gained him rapid promotion.
After the war Maxwell used various contacts to go into business in Allied-occupied Germany, becoming the British and United States distributor for Springer Verlag, a publisher of scientific books. In 1951 he bought Pergamon Press, a minor textbook publisher, from Springer Verlag, and went into publishing on his own. He rapidly built Pergamon into a major publishing house.
By the 1960s Maxwell was a wealthy man, while still espousing the socialism of his youth. In 1964 he was elected to the House of Commons for the British Labour Party, and was MP for Buckingham until he lost his seat in 1970. He was not popular in the Labour Party, having what was perceived by some to be an arrogant and domineering manner.
Maxwell had also already acquired a reputation for questionable business practice. In 1969, as a result of a disputed takeover bid for Pergamon from an American company, he was subjected to an enquiry by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The DTI report concluded: "We regret having to conclude that, notwithstanding Mr Maxwell's acknowledged abilities and energy, he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company."
After leaving Parliament, Maxwell – like many successful publishers – sought to buy a daily newspaper, hoping to exercise political influence through the media. In 1980 he formed the Maxwell Communications Corporation, but was blocked from buying the News of the World by Rupert Murdoch, who became his arch-rival in the British newspaper world. In 1984 Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mirror, a traditionally pro-Labour paper. He also bought the American interests of the Macmillan publishing house.
By the 1980s Maxwell's various companies owned the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail and several other newspapers, Pergamon Press, Nimbus Records, Collier books, Maxwell Directories, Prentice Hall Information Services, Macmillan (US) publishing, and the Berlitz language schools. He also owned a half-share of MTV in Europe and other European television interests, Maxwell Cable TV and Maxwell Entertainment.
Rumours circulated for many years about Maxwell's heavy indebtedness and his corrupt business practices. But Maxwell was well-financed and had good lawyers, and threats of legal action caused his potential critics to treat him with caution. The satirical magazine Private Eye lampooned him as a "Cap'n Bob," but was unable to reveal what it knew about Maxwell's business.
Evidence suggests that Maxwell's business empire was built on debt and deception. He had "borrowed" millions of pounds of his employees' money from his companies' pension funds to prop up his financial position. In the late 1980s he bought and sold companies at a rapid rate, apparently to conceal the unsound foundations of his business. In 1990 he launched an ambitious new project, a transnational newspaper called The European. The following year he was forced to sell Pergamon Press and Maxwell Directories to Elsevier for 440 million pounds to cover debts, but he used some of this money to buy the New York Daily News.
By late 1990 investigative journalists, mainly from the Murdoch press, were exploring Maxwell's manipulation of his company's pension schemes. During May 1991 it was reported that Maxwell companies and pension schemes were failing to meet statutory reporting obligations. Maxwell employees lodged complaints with British and U.S. regulatory agencies about the abuse of Maxwell company pension funds. Maxwell may have suspected that the truth about his questionable practices was about to be made public.
On November 5, 1991 Maxwell disappeared from his luxury yacht, Lady Ghislane, which was cruising off the Canary Islands, and his body was later found floating in the ocean. He was buried in Jerusalem. The official verdict was accidental drowning, though some commentators have surmised that he may have committed suicide, and others that he was murdered.
Shortly before he died, a self-proclaimed former Mossad officer named Ari Ben-Menashe approached a number of news organizations in Britain and America with the allegation that Maxwell and the Daily Mirror's foreign editor, Nick Davies, were both long-time agents for the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. Ben-Menashe also claimed that, in 1986, Maxwell had tipped off the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had given information about Israel's nuclear capability to the Sunday Times, then to the Daily Mirror.  (Vanunu was subsequently lured from London, where the Sunday Times had him in hiding, to Rome, from where he was kidnapped and returned to Israel, convicted of treason, and imprisoned for 18 years.)
No news organization would publish Ben-Menashe's story at first, because of Maxwell's famed litigiousness, but eventually New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh repeated some of the allegations during a press conference in London held to publicize The Sampson Option, Hersch's book about Israel's nuclear weapons. A British MP asked a question about Hersch's claims in the House of Commons, which meant that British newspapers were able to report what had been said without fear of being sued for libel. Maxwell called the claims "ludicrous, a total invention," but he sacked Nick Davies, and just days later, was found dead. 
The close proximity of his death to these allegations, for which Ben-Menashe had offered no evidence, served to heighten interest in Maxwell's relationship with Israel, and the Daily Mirror has since published claims, again without evidence, that he was killed by the Mossad because he had tried to blackmail them. 
A 2005 broadcast on the Discovery Channel (in the program Conspiracies on Trial) claimed that even if Maxwell had suffered a heart attack, it is unlikely that he would have fallen overboard without help. The broadcast concluded that the most likely cause of death was the injection of air into his bloodstream to cause a heart attack, after which he was allegedly dropped into the sea.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding his death, Maxwell was given a funeral in Israel that would have befitted a head of state. As described by author Gordon Thomas:
- "...On November 10, 1991, Maxwells funeral took place on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the resting place for the nations most revered heroes. It had all the trappings of a state occasion, attended by the countrys government and opposition leaders. No fewer than six serving and former heads of the Israeli intelligence community listened as Prime Minister Shamir eulogized: "He has done more for Israel than can today be said." (Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad [St. Martin's Press] 1999) 
Events after his death
Maxwell's death triggered a flood of revelations about his controversial business dealings and activities. It emerged that, without adequate prior authorization, he had used hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies' pension funds to finance his corporate debt, his frantic takeovers and his lavish lifestyle. Thousands of Maxwell employees lost their pensions.
The Maxwell companies filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992. His sons Kevin and Ian Maxwell were declared bankrupt with debts of 400 million pounds. In 1995 the two Maxwell sons and two other former directors went on trial for fraud, but were acquitted in 1996. In 2001 the Department of Trade and Industry report on the collapse of the Maxwell companies accused both Maxwell and his sons of acting "inexcusably."
- Robert Maxwell was a Mossad spy by Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon, The Daily Mirror, December 2, 2002.
- "The Samson Option, by Seymour M. Hersh" a review by Steven Emerson, Commentary magazine, January 1992
- "Maxwell's body found in sea", by Ben Laurance, John Hooper, David Sharrock, and Georgina Henry, The Guardian, November 6, 1991
- Short BBC profile of Robert Maxwell
- Accountancy Age timeline
- Department of Trade and Industry report on Maxwell's purchase of the Mirror Group
- Hersch, Seymour. 1991. The Sampson Option
- Thomas, Gordon and Dillon, Martin. (2002). Robert Maxwell: Israel's Superspy : The Life and Murder of a Media Mogul, Carroll and Graf, ISBN 0786710780