House of Maxwell (Episode 2): pension fund scandal not treated with the importance deserved

Daniel Vernon, “House of Maxwell (Episode 2)” (2022)

As with the opening episode of this three-part documentary series on the scandals surrounding Robert Maxwell and his daughter Ghislaine, this episode barely brushes the surface of the pension fund scandal that brought down his media publishing empire after his untimely death in mystery circumstances in November 1991. Many people are interviewed in this episode but they all provide a very limited and narrow view into a very complex scandal. In a nutshell, over several decades Maxwell had taken out many loans to build and sustain his massive newspaper / magazine, book publishing and other related media businesses. After his death, banks and other financial lenders began calling in their loans. It soon emerged that over the years Maxwell had been plundering hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies’ pension funds: money that rightly belonged to his companies’ employees. After a three-year campaign by pensioners who had worked for some of these companies, the stolen monies were partly replenished by a group of investment banks and the British government but generally the affected pensioners ended up receiving only half of what they were entitled to. The companies that had been part of Maxwell’s media empire filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992 and Kevin Maxwell, who along with brother Ian had inherited control of their father’s media empire, was declared bankrupt with debts of £400 million. In 1995 the two brothers and two other former company directors were on trial on charges of conspiracy to defraud but were later acquitted.

If the episode had been 20 minutes shorter and had included this much information about the pension fund scandal, the Maxwell business empire collapse and the mess that embroiled Kevin and Ian Maxwell – plus some information about how the two men managed to rebuild their careers as businessmen – it would have been very good and informative. The effect on the people who worked for the Maxwell companies and lost their pensions should have been a major part of the episode. What the British government did (or didn’t do) to ensure that companies could never again rob their employees by stealing their pension fund investments to pay off loans or engage in illegal activity was not addressed either. Instead the documentary, by focusing on the pension fund scandal in a vague way, manages to cut off the important underlying context: what was all the stolen money used for, was any of it recovered by fraud investigators, why was £100 million waived so that the pensioners whose money was stolen only got 50% of what they were entitled to?

The documentary seems to be much dazzled by the strange and weird ways of wealthy people like the Maxwells, so much so that it seems to be more sympathetic towards them and treats them very deferentially while the Maxwells’ victims (in this episode anyway) get short shrift.