High stakes and tough breaks on the trail of Twiggy

By Andrew Burrell
Cartoon by Sturt Krygsman

Australia’s richest man refused to co-operate with the ‘acerbic’ Andrew Burrell’s biography. What’s a bloke to do? Keep calm and carry on.

A word of warning: if you’re thinking of writing a biography of a prominent figure, you’d better get used to answering one question above all others. “Is it authorised or unauthorised?” The query will come from friends, family members, colleagues, work contacts and almost everyone you speak to as part of your research.

My book on the life of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest was unauthorised, which often prompted the seemingly redundant follow-up question: “But is he co-operating with you at all?”

I first approached Forrest with the idea of writing a book about his life in late 2011.

Looking back, I guess I naively assumed he would co-operate in some form, either consenting to interviews or allowing me to speak to his family and close friends.

But he made it clear from the outset that he didn’t want a biography written. Well, not by me anyway. “Mate, you’re a terrific bloke, but your writing can be a bit “acerbic,” he said.

His opposition surprised me. Since 2006, I have covered the resources industry and the rise of Forrest’s company, Fortescue Metals Group, as a business journalist in Perth for both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.

Executives at Fortescue have told me they believe my reporting has been fair, even when the stories were negative, as many inevitably were. Certainly nobody had ever described me as “acerbic” and my dealings with Twiggy had been reasonably friendly.

In fact, when I stood on a wharf in Shanghai in June 2008 to report on the arrival of Fortescue’s first shipment of iron ore in China, Forrest was so excited he gave me a hug, slapped my back and generally treated me like his best mate (a tactic I later discovered he uses on most people he’s trying to impress).

Despite attempts by people close to Forrest to convince him to talk, he remained staunchly opposed throughout 2012 to chatting to me about his colourful life.

So I got on with my research without him.

But the real surprise came when I found out that Forrest had commissioned his own “authorised” biography that would feature extensive interviews with himself, his family and close friends.

Like any half-decent journalist, I was sparked into action by the sudden threat of competition. If Forrest was going to produce his own book, I would simply need to make more phone calls, find better anecdotes and tell the real story in mine.

But writing a biography of someone like Andrew Forrest without his co-operation was always going to be a challenge.

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Twiggy is a household name in Perth, and has friends in high places. When he attends mining conferences, he is feted as a rock star by the legion of hopefuls who dream of emulating his spectacular exploits. The same people who once derided Forrest as a corporate cowboy – after he blew hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholder funds at Anaconda Nickel – now cosy up to him, often seeking lucrative contracts or philanthropic donations.

When he gave away $65 million to the five Western Australian universities in September, he did so in the presence of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Premier Colin Barnett, Governor Malcolm McCusker and University of WA chancellor Michael Chaney, a corporate heavyweight in Perth.

It is pretty simple to find people to say nice things about Forrest; it’s much harder to scratch the surface. Mind you, I wasn’t setting out to do a hatchet job, nor did I want to produce a hagiography. I realised that to have any credibility, the book needed to be fair.

When I called Forrest’s friends, associates and former colleagues, almost all initially expressed enthusiasm about talking to me. Many obviously hadn’t been warned off speaking. But within a day or two, they were failing to answer my phone calls and emails. In several cases, I knew beyond doubt that Forrest had convinced them not to talk.

One former colleague was most eager to schedule a time and venue to meet – only to call back a few hours later to say he’d have to cancel our planned off-the-record chat. He had asked Forrest for permission to talk and it had been declined. Another former colleague, who remains close to Forrest, sent me a polite email to cancel our meeting. He wrote: “Sorry – I am sure you can work out why.”

Despite these setbacks, I believe Forrest’s opposition turned out to be a positive for the book. His co-operation would not necessarily have led to a better biography, because many of the people I tracked down provided sharper insights into his character than Forrest himself may have been able to give.

As news of my project spread, people actually started contacting me. Among them were some of Forrest’s friends and associates, who defied his wishes and spoke to me at length. I also had a pretty handy contact book that could be drawn on to fill some of the gaps.

Since the book hit the shelves, the most common question I’ve been asked is:

“Have you heard from Twiggy?” The answer is no.

But when he appeared on the ABC’s Lateline program in late October, he was quizzed about some of the book’s revelations published that week in The Australian.

Given that the stories had revealed Forrest had links to the extremist Australian League of Rights, had relied on controversial former WA premier Brian Burke for a chunk of his success and had been so desperate for cash in 2001 that he’d borrowed $3 million from a convicted drug dealer, I was bracing for “Twiggy” to slam all my hard work. But the best he could do was to describe the book as “poorly referenced”.

That was a shock because I’d meticulously listed about 1000 primary and secondary sources at the back of the book. If anything should have been beyond reproach, it was the exhaustive referencing.

By now, Forrest has doubtless read the whole book. But if he believes there are any serious errors or omissions – and I did my best to ensure there are none – he can’t genuinely complain that he wasn’t given the chance to tell his side of the story. Or perhaps he’s just waiting to do that in his “authorised” biography, which is due out next year.

Twiggy: The high-stakes life of Andrew Forrest by Andrew Burrell, published by Black Inc., RRP $29.99

Andrew Burrell is a senior journalist with The Australian in Perth