Among book publishers, foreign companies now own Doubleday, Bantam Books, MacMillan, New American Library, Charles Scribner’s Sons and Viking, to name only some. A Japanese company owns CBS Records, the worlds biggest producer of recorded music. Rupert Murdoch owns America’s fourth television network, Fox, not to mention some of the world’s biggest magazines and newspapers.
Should we worry? What exactly do we know about these sometimes intensely private foreign owners? (OK, so Rupert Murdoch became an American citizen, but who believes it?) If foreign interests control a substantial share of American media, what are the implications for American interests, say, in the case of war?
It is a short step to asking--and indeed some in Washington already have--whether one of these international media company’s might have the financial backing of interests in the Soviet bloc.
That in short is the question posited by “Agent of Influence,” the brisk, plot-driven second novel by former National Security Council member David Aaron.
French media magnate Marcel Bresson wants to buy News/Worldweek, a media company that seems a combination of the Washington Post Co., Turner Broadcasting and United Press International, with over two hundred newspapers, a wire service, a dozen TV stations, an all-News cable network, a newsweekly and even a baseball team. Like Aaron’s characters News/Worldweek is a little too big to be real and has too few people of talent running it.
As the book opens, Bresson hires the investment banking firm of Gould Axeworth to help him make the deal, hiring in particular Jayson Lyman, a bold young Stanford Business School graduate who runs Gould’s mergers and acquisitions department.
Through visits to Europe and building of the hostile takeover bid, Lyman soon begins to suspect there is something fishy about his client, Les Editions Bresson, and its mysterious chairman. Before long, Lyman is negotiating a takeover that secretly he hopes will fail.
Aaron’s prose stays safely out of the way of his plot, which clearly here is the main character. And though this book is not without problems, its strengths derive largely from Aaron’s strong sense of story construction and knack for verisimilitude.
Perhaps the best choice Aaron made was making his hero an investment banker, an unlikely choice in these days, now that Drexel Burnham Lambert has fired dealmaker Michael Milken, the stock market has crashed and speculator Ivan Boesky is serving time.
This choice of character allows Aaron to show us from the inside how “the deal business” works. He skillfully draws on his experience as vice president for mergers and acquisitions at Oppenheimer and Co. from 1981 to 1985 to help demystify the seemingly arcane financial structuring of mergers and acquisitions. More important, he gives a fine sense of the extent to which these mergers are driven not by business sense but by ego, greed, and malice.
One of the more interesting characters is Drew Richardson, the chairman of World/Newsweek, who after toiling a corporate manager for years wants to take the company private largely so that he can finally accumulate great wealth. The character resonates with such deals as the recent buyout of RJR/Nabisco.
Aaron’s villian, Bresson, resonates with real life as well, seemingly modeled after Australia’s Rupert Murdoch and Robert Holmes a Court and perhaps particularly Britain’s Robert Maxwell.
Maxwell, chairman of Britain’s biggest printing company and also England’s racy Daily Mirror, is a Czech-born businessman whose business interests trace their ownership to a Liechtenstein company called Pergamon Holding Foundation. The question of who owns Pergamon shares has proven a source of considerable specualtion in England.
Bresson’s background is similarly mysterious, as is, it turns out, the source of his financial backing.
Aaron successfully avoids moralizing about the dangers of foreign ownership, or letting his situation overwhelm his plot. And another danger, the fact that we can see this plot coming from the first page, is fairly deftly neutralized, by raising enough intrigue around how the good guys will win.
But Aaron falters, as he did in his best-selling “State Scarlet” in 1987, with his manic ending. It is so unlikely that it is a letdown even for a book that is light entertainment. Without giving away the store, suffice to say one of the world’s most ruthless master spies isn’t nearly as tough as he should be.
More troubling is that Aaron’s characters lack the depth of real people, the soft spot of most thrillers predicated on what-if propositions.
Still, Aaron has a sure eye for situations that will make entertaining books, and perhaps even good movies. And while he lacks the skill of Len Deighton, the plausibility of Scott Turow, or the depth of John le Carre, he has produced a second entertaining book.