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Conrad Black, Press Lord Redux
by Scott Disher

"The indolent may indeed find fault, but the man of action will seek to rival us, and he who is less fortunate will envy us. To be hateful and offensive has ever been at the time the fate of those who have aspired to empire. But he judges well who accepts unpopularity in a great cause. Hatred does not last long, and, besides the immediate splendour of great actions, the renown of them endures for ever in men's memories."-Pericles, in Thucydides' history
Most professions engender archetypes. Accordingly, certain behaviours, mannerisms, speech, and ethics are expected. Thus, a great baseball manager, in order to be revered-an intrinsic expectation-must possess a knack for routinely issuing droll pronouncements and homespun truths that are at once sensible and nonsensical.
Another vaunted twentieth-century occupation, that of press baron, also carries with it the onerous duty of being regarded as a monstre sacré. As with lawyers and other "types", one is never sure whether the job plays an integral role in the creation of the persona or merely serves to attract people previously equipped with the right mix of the requisite bestiary tendencies: deviousness, irascibility, volatility, truculence, restlessness, a childhood marked by "fiendish" behaviour, pathological aggressiveness, paranoia, debilitating anxiety attacks, a cold and foreboding mien, domineering conduct or bumptiousness, tempestuous outbursts, extreme pettiness, erratic observation of personal and social obligations, unfettered egotism, unbridled arrogance, a casual disregard for factual niceties, hypocrisy, greed, snobbery, and capriciousness.
Two men, one British, the other American, best embodied the repellent mystique of the modern press lord: Alfred Harmsworth and William Randolph Hearst. Harmsworth, who became Lord Northcliffe, and Hearst, whom Orson Welles parodied in Citizen Kane, pioneered mass-marketing techniques and technological advances in publishing. Both were daring, brooding, dictatorial personalities with an intuitive genius for recreating "news" as popular entertainment; both remained married but flaunted conventional mores by consorting openly with notorious mistresses. Both harboured unfulfilled political ambitions; Northcliffe was obsessed with Napoleon, Hearst by Napoleon, Caesar, Lincoln, and other immortals; both men were called "the Chief" by their employees. Of Northcliffe, the biographer Paul Ferris wrote: "To those who knew him he had a sharply defined, sometimes overpowering personality, arrogant and self-opinionated, charming and humorous, easy to be attracted by, difficult to be intimate with." The proprietor of the Times, who succumbed to symptoms associated with neurosyphilis, was described circumspectly in that paper's obituary: "To his personality none who came in touch with him could be indifferent. Many it attracted, some it repelled, but all felt its power."
W. A. Swanberg, whose sensationalistic Citizen Hearst broke taboos when it was first published thirty-five years ago, described Hearst's inner self as "Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon combined. He was the most megalomaniac of men, supremely sure of his own greatness....He revered greatness and felt a kinship with the great." In his book The House of Northcliffe, Ferris quoted from a letter Northcliffe wrote in 1917 when he was at the height of his power: "Heaven forbid that I should ever be in Downing Street....I believe the independent newspaper to be one of the future forms of government."
The puckish, self-made Canadian financier William Maxwell Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), who recast himself as a British politician, popular historian, and quixotic press magnate, was the nonpareil manipulator, amoral schemer, sexual adventurer, and press-lord bully between the two world wars. Loved, loathed, and denounced as a "mad dog", he was a compelling proprietor and publisher, a skilful propagandist and adept self-promoter: many professional historians accepted his insider accounts of significant twentieth-century political developments, including his own role in the WWII Allied air war victory. He coerced one biographer (Tom Driberg) into submission and enlisted another, the distinguished historian A. J. P. Taylor, as his official hagiographer.
Even the devastatingly accurate, posthumous biography Beaverbrook: A Life, by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, ended in triumph for him: it is the most superbly written of all the newspaper-satrap lives-by immortalizing Beaverbrook as one of the most fascinating personalities of the century. As well as his own political and historical books, there are dozens of memoirs and autobiographies in which "Max" either plays a lead or featured role, or puts in memorable, cameo appearances.
Part of the insurance policy guaranteeing the diminutive elf-lord's place in posterity are three novels in which he figures as a central character: as the preposterous Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh's satirical masterpiece, Scoop; in Sunflower, published posthumously by a putative Beaverbrook paramour, Dame Rebecca West; and as Lord Ottercove in his friend William Gerhardie's fanciful Jazz and Jasper, which enchanted the novelist and critic Arnold Bennett (also a Beaverbrook chum), who marvelled that his friend could be portrayed "with a ruthlessness which yet somehow shows both appreciation and affection."
Davie has written that Gerhardie
"captures the comedy and the menace of Beaverbrook's personality, his erratic generosity, and the electrifying impact he could make on a new admirer: `To be alone with a man who has wrecked more than one Ministry...to feel the contact of power!' Like Beaverbrook, Ottercove moves in a whirlwind of secretaries, editors, maharajas, ministers, and pretty women....Gerhardie makes him godlike, but childlike too: `He is Hannibal playing quoits with the world. Not, I regret to say, because he loves the world but because he loves playing quoits.' "
Nine years after Northcliffe's death in 1922, the British Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, a phlegmatic ditherer, lashed out at the destructive antics of Beaverbrook's Express and the newspapers owned by Northcliffe's brother Harold (Lord Rothermere). In one of the most famous denunciations of "abusive" press power, the embattled Baldwin-whose resignation Beaverbrook had demanded-decried the Beaverbrook and Rothermere newspapers as
"engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men.
"What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of a speaker's meaning by putting sentences apart from the context, suppression, and the editorial criticism of speeches which are not reported in the paper....What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility-the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."
(In this mocking of Beaverbrook and his chimerical United Empire Party, the last phrase was coined by a man who had once been a sycophantic admirer of his, Baldwin's cousin Rudyard Kipling, the last great romanticizer of the Empire.)
Even in their heydays, Northcliffe, Beaverbrook, and Hearst were being challenged by other acquisitive wielders of influence and power, such as the Berry brothers, Lord Camrose of the Daily Telegraph and Lord Kemsley of the Sunday Times and Allied Newspapers, or the McCormicks in Chicago, but none of the succeeding generations of newspaper moguls have quite matched the profligacy, panache, or mad magnetism of these three tycoons.
By the 1960s newspaper costs were spiralling. The untramelled power of the press unions and the siphoning off of advertising revenues to the new medium of television heralded a more pragmatic managerial era in newspaperdom. The financial decline of Fleet Street, together with the dissipation of many of the staid, family-owned franchises paved the way for more efficient operators.
In scarcely more than a decade of wheeling and dealing, an unprepossessing but crafty transplanted Canadian, Roy Thomson (Lord Thomson of Fleet), transformed himself into a precursor of international chain ownership. His trademark was a bland, hands-off approach to content-combined with uniform accounting efficiencies, innocuously innovative commercial and promotional practices and a parsimonious regime of bottom-line imperatives. The main exception to the former failed radio salesman's usual modus operandi was his ludicrous, regency-like stewardship of England's invertedly fossilized establishmentarian tip-sheet, the Times-a ransome arrangement that cost the eccentrically plebeian colonial with the Midas touch and his heirs tens of millions of pounds but sealed the purchase of his long sought-after emolument, an hereditary peerage.
Although Hearst and others had owed enormous sums to the banks, today's media empires were conceived as highly leveraged organisms. "Expand or die" is the postmodern media owner's mantra. Companies in which the majority owners stand pat, while accumulating debt simply to upgrade current operations, soon become takeover targets.
Media properties changed hands at an accelerated pace throughout the 1980s, a decade in which recessionary downsizing and junk-bond-financed mergers became the norm: the steady cash-flows of media businesses prompted a predatory frenzy amongst a new wave of information industry conglomerateurs. TV networks, cable franchises, software companies, movie studios, newspaper, magazine, book and electronic-data publishers, music and video production and distribution businesses were swallowed up whole or in part; it became standard for indebted buyers to strip off newly acquired assets and vend them piecemeal at inflated prices.
In an industry where the brass rule was supplanted light-years ago-by hot and then cold type, and now by PCs, modems, scanners, software fonts, and laser-equipped offset presses-newspapers are no longer the brass ring of Gutenberg-inspired capitalism. Local daily newspapers are not necessarily destined for the post-industrial chopping block. But to survive and adapt, cathartic measures will be needed while managers, bean counters, and marketers reinvent and reposition the traditional product.
Two ascendant media entrepreneurs, one Canadian and the other an Australian with U.S. citizenship, have achieved mythic status lately as globalist Visigoths-predators whose brutal, slash-and-burn approach to restructuring faltering franchises has earned them the enmity of social democrats and unionized newspaper employees. Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch-neither of whom has sought a peerage-who own competing newspapers in England and Australia, are a study in contrasts; much maligned, both men have been the subjects of recently published biographies that critics have disparaged as too admiring.
Shades of Black, written by the Financial Post reporter Richard Siklos and released in Canada late last year, is actually the third volume of what promises to be a saga; the first Black biography, published in 1982 when he was a thirty-something Bay Street phenomenon, was Peter C. Newman's The Establishment Man: A Portrait of Power. The second, longest, most entertaining, and best-written of this makeshift trilogy is Black's own A Life in Progress, which he rushed into print in 1993-in the year before his fiftieth birthday-after learning that Newman and Siklos were both contemplating new, full-length biographies.
Some (Siklos and several British book reviewers, among others) derive considerable delight in mocking the ponderous exuberance of Black's archaisms, fustian tone, his occasionally tortured syntax and penchant for maladroit metaphors. Let me confess to a recent conversion. I have become something of a fan of Black's, though of a non-conforming variety.
Despite some unappealing foibles, he is a genuinely erudite, witty raconteur with an uncanny ability for ferreting out venality. He penned one of my favourite putdowns of all time in one of his eccentric "letters from the proprietor" in the Spectator. After having a go at some anti-Catholic inmates from atop the pecking order in the Thatcherite henhouse, especially the hapless Sir Ferdinand Mount, he dismissed them all as "Cantuarian Zouaves". He also demonstrates a connoisseur's appreciation of the cut and thrust of political life. For the most part (when his ideological blinkers don't interfere), he is an astute judge of character and a perceptive analyst whose views veer towards palaeoconservatism. His keen eye for the ridiculous and his raucous jocularity are almost as celebrated as his prowess as a verbal pugilist.
As a polemical memoirist and periodic pulpiteer, Black is not yet in Beaverbrook's league, but that day may come soon. In a guest column he wrote this spring for the Financial Post (in which he has a minority interest, with an option to buy control), he excoriated the "hare-brained Palookas in the RCMP who first comprised this lynch-mob" and the Liberal ministers answerable for the police investigation of the Mulroney-Airbus affair, who, he said, "have been as silent and inert as suet puddings."
Ironically, his attacks on the RCMP and his defence of Brian Mulroney hearken back to his "disillusioning personal experience" in 1982, when the Toronto Police bunko squad subjected him to a protracted investigation for suspected stock fraud, of which he was later exonerated. In his autobiography, he laid much of the blame for that legal ordeal at the feet of his friend Mulroney, then president of Iron Ore of Canada. He now believes that theunpopular former prime minister has been caught in a trap that
"could not have been imagined by Kafka, Koestler, and Orwell in the piping days of Stalin's show trials....His accusers have slunk away and hidden behind a glazed pall of prevarication.
"Most of our crusading press has been struck dumb like Zachariah in the Temple (but without his excuse of supernatural intervention). If this sort of totalitarian proceeding can be inflicted on Brian Mulroney, no Canadian is safe from it."
Black's problem, as a writer and as a public figure, is that while he seems concerned with the common good, he refuses to truckle-a favourite Blackism-to popular tastes. Democrats do it; dictators do it (hell, even popes do it) but Black obdurately won't. As Newman said in The Establishment Man ,
"Black has trouble connecting with ordinary people in everyday situations ....There is in his bearing Jehovian pride that tends to complicate the simplest of human exchanges. He suffers from what the French call l'orgueil-an untranslatable quality of the thirst to play God that implies its possessor is seldom wrong and never regretful."
His apparent heroes are a disparate lot-mostly men of action, addicted to the exercise of power, charismatic, Machiavellian, despots and democrats, aloof and authoritarian, dirigiste political and economic reformers-misunderstood by their contemporaries. They also tend to be self-mythologizers, most of them accomplished liars: Caesar, Napoleon, Marshal Foch, Lincoln, FDR, MacArthur, Duplessis, Mackenzie King, de Gaulle, LBJ, Nixon, Thatcher, Reagan.
Given his reputed bookishness and impressive personal library, it is peculiar that neither of his biographers have seen fit to delve into his literary tastes. But then again, they were both denied entry to his baronially appointed, arriviste Toronto pile, "Havenwold". Aside from his own references to Freud and Cardinal Newman, a scornful dismissal of Marcuse, and a professed admiration for William F. Buckley and various neo-conservative intellectuals-Bernard-Henri Lévy, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, and Irving Kristol are cited in Newman's book-plus sophomoric characterizations in A Life in Progress of Hegel and Nietzsche ("a brilliant but deranged epigrammatist"), desultory evocations of Spenglerian pessimism and its diametric opposite, "Micawberism", and fleeting references to two English Catholic novelists, Greene and Waugh, to Dickens, Dr. Johnson, Camus, and Death of a Salesman, little is known of Black's intellectual influences or preferences.
This lacuna has occasioned a good deal of Pecksniffery from the left-wing London literary set, many of whom view Black as a pompous philistine who trots out startling historical and military references as a sort of brute-savant parlour trick to impress upon his newfound glitterati friends that he is not only rich and conservative but a bona fide member of the intelligentsia. As a writer, his engaging prose style and unique perspective merit more than grudging recognition. His political biography of Maurice Duplessis, which betrays not a shred of Weberian hypothesizing, must have had influences, echoes. Had he steeped himself in the works of Macaulay, Gibbon, Turner, Parkman, and others before embarking on his revisionist appraisal of a politician whom most Canadian historians had treated as a corrupt bigot and fascist buffoon? Whence arose his fascination with papal politics and the detritus of Quebec's ultramontanist and Pétainist right?
His most enthusiastically implacable detractor is Christopher Hitchens, the nauseatingly self-referential and self-reverential post-New-Left, neo-nihilist, whose fin-de-siècle column appears in Vanity Fair. In February, Hitchens reviewed Siklos's "rather respectful" biography in the Guardian, a moderately left-of-centre newspaper for which Black, as proprietor of Britain's leading Conservative daily, the Telegraph, openly expresses contempt. In his review, which is a vituperative gem, Hitchens sloughs off Black's autobiography as
"so agonizingly ill-written....almost unquotably bad, in that the syntactic chaos and pomposity take up too much space to reproduce accurately....
"It's often been remarked of Canadians, and most usually by Canadians, that they have a slight penis-envy both of the British and the Americans. Black...appears to have resolved it by emulating all the most ruthless traits of both....I have heard more than one British Tory tell...tales of farouche evenings in his company as he seeks to demonstrate ruthless and unsentimental qualities, or to pose as the last defender of Thomas Carlyle's theory of history."
Another left-wing British reviewer, John Dugdale, taunted him in the New Statesman: "If Black's portfolio constitutes `the world's fastest growing press empire', that's because it is only a press empire....This concentration stems partly from snootiness, a disdain for getting dirtied à la Murdoch by controlling pop tabloids and TV stations. But it's arguably also a function of Black's historical fixation, which makes him averse to media invented in this century."
John Fraser, a former Globe and Mail writer, now master of Massey College, was a classmate of Black's at Upper Canada College and later worked for him as editor of Saturday Night after he bought the magazine, which had fallen into a parlous financial state. According to Fraser, who sketched Black's pre-adolescent peccadilloes with a mixture of affection and awe in a whimsical collection of Canadian biographical sketches, Telling Tales, even as a schoolboy Black "had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of who was worth what." Since then, Fraser related in an interview, he has honed that skill into a highly-developed business stratagem: "Conrad specializes in dissipated heirs."
A less sympathetic observer, Dugdale, summarized his buying methods this way:
"Being comfortable with people in his echelon is central to Black's MO. By networking regularly with other titans...you make yourself congenial...sharing their rabid-right prejudices-but also ensure that you learn whenever a press dynasty is ailing. At that point-with the Fairfaxes of Australia, the Southams of Canada, the Berrys in Britain-you zero in like a shark on a bleeding swimmer. After overpowering your prey, you install ruthless local managers (such as an astonishing, boorish, ultra-hawkish ex-Israeli Army colonel at the Jerusalem Post), who hire like-minded editors once uncompliant incumbents have been ousted."
Often, in a delirium of extremism, the London hacks-who are every bit as ruthless in picking apart their intended prey-transpose commentary into a fetishistic, Waughian parallel universe. For instance, Hitchens's tart take on Siklos's mild attempts at mythologizing Black's adolescent fixation with Hearst et al.:
"Once the fit was on him, Black would start making reference to Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, and to read papers only for their advertising (a practice one sometimes wishes that he had not discontinued). There is only one cure for this syndrome and it is acquisition.
"In this book, if you care for it, is the account by a highly competent business journalist of an orgiastic process of growth and expansion....The story is, in more than one sense, a familiar one."
Clearly besotted by the heady perfume of his own venom, Hitchens cleverly invoked a part of Citizen Kane that is based on fact, and then superimposed "Citizen Black" and his second wife:
"What I want to know is: when will Conrad Black build an opera house for Barbara Amiel? I want to be there on the opening night, to join the mounting applause, to see that not even this will pacify his demons-and to be Conrad's friend and help soothe away his tears."
Hitchens's cunning palimpsest was merely the latest salvo lobbed at Black in a series of set-piece skirmishes that have assumed a defining role in his public life as a press proprietor. Another memorable attack has emerged from the sporadic Black-Hitchens fusillade. In the wake of a spectacularly rare but nonetheless hubristic printed retraction by Black in the Spectator-in which he partly recanted an earlier vehement upbraiding handed another journalist in his employ, the Telegraph correspondent Stephen Robinson-Hitchens countered with a savage missive in the Guardian:
"If your reporters followed your example, there would be room for nothing but grovels, Canossas [a frequent invocation of Black's own], and mea culpas ....I would say-stop now before you kill again. Think of the apologies before you write the letters, or the editorials."
Though Siklos devotes more than a page to this exchange, he cautiously keeps inside self-imposed limits. Notwithstanding the gleeful tone underlying this account of Black's empire-building escapades, Shades of Black is constrained by its author's tightrope balancing-act. Thus, he offers up this anecdote:
"One day, a London auction house announced that it was selling a cache of exotic Napoleonic memorabilia including, apparently, Bonaparte's preserved penis. A rumour swept through media circles that Black had purchased the body part in question. Francis Wheen, writing for the Independent on Sunday, phoned Black's office to ascertain whether there was any truth in the rumour. Rosemary Millar, Black's stoic assistant, said she would speak to the chairman about this matter. She soon rang back with a prepared response: `The proprietor of the Daily Telegraph would like to go on record to say that he does certainly not own Napoleon's penis.'"
On the same page, Siklos seemingly indulged Black by quoting an elaborate tergiversation on Napoleon:
"His career was just so prodigious. His origins were so obscure and his impact on Europe was so great that he's automatically an interesting phenomenon....his talents as a myth-maker, as a self-romanticist, are astonishing....Selling glory is a little hard when the sole beneficiary is yourself-I mean, selling it to the people who give up their lives and limbs for you. But all that said, I've never found him an attractive personality, just a great talent. I wouldn't go so far as Clarendon's statement of Cromwell, `He was a great bad man.' I don't think Napoleon was bad, but he had psychopathic tendencies. He was indifferent, I think, to the misery that arose at least partly in consequence of his policies. In certain areas he was surprisingly unimaginative. As a statesman, he had no policy except making war."
This is the sardonic reticence of a passive-aggressive biographer, who impales his subject with pellucid ironies. Another disconcerting device-the pale rendering of opponents' feral badinage-serves to accentuate Black's erumpent crudity, incidents of which saturate the narrative. For the record, some excerpts from Wheen's sanguinary whacks at Black:
"This is pretty rich coming from a newspaper proprietor who is forever berating reporters for their slipshod methods....his own sense of reality is no more reliable than that of the drunkenness hack in the gutters of Fleet Street-or for that matter, of a bearded nut in Trafalgar Square. But he owns newspapers."
In this country, slagging Conrad Black was once a ritualistic cottage industry, second only to constitutional prognosticating but riskier, owing to his former proclivity for responding with writs to slight intimations of libel. Aside from a perceptive appraisal by Heather Mallick in the Toronto Sun (which Black once ridiculed as not "a newspaper of record for anyone who doesn't suffer from lip-strain after ten seconds of silent reading"), the only remarkable review of Siklos's book in a Canadian newspaper was a sanctimonious slam by a freelancer in a Southam paper, the Montreal Gazette. Guy Sprung's depiction of Black as a boorish bully and braggart will, no doubt, enhance his market value within the pastures of Canadian book reviewing.
Whether through habitual torpor and timidity, employment anxiety, or a conditioned reflex of slavish docility, Canadian hacks did not seize the opportunity that this lively book presented. Perhaps it was the pall of libel chill or Black's purchase over the past year of some forty-odd more Canadian newspapers, including two of the country's top ten circulation English-language dailies (the Sifton family's Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post) and a raft of Thomson chain castoffs.
On the Southam board, Black is locked into an unprofitable alliance with the Montreal financier Paul Desmarais; theoretically, the two organizations exercise joint control over Canada's dominant newspaper group. Through UniMedia, Black controls two of the top five French-language dailies, Le Soleil in Quebec City and Le Droit in Ottawa, in addition to Le Quotidien in Chicoutimi and a group of local weeklies, and Novalis, which publishes and circulates two million copies of various religious periodicals across North America.
His other press properties comprise an eclectic mix: a string of small papers in B.C. and elsewhere, a minority stake in Toronto's money-losing Financial Post, Saturday Night (which, John Fraser estimates, has absorbed $12 million in losses), some 430 weeklies and small-city dailies in the U.S., one of the top ten circulation dailies in the U.S., the Chicago Sun-Times, a 25% managing interest in the upmarket Australian Fairfax newspaper group, which has a 20% share of that country's daily newspaper readership, the small but influential Jerusalem Post, a fledgeling presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, complete control of the very profitable Telegraph, England's influential, best-selling, quality national broadsheet, as well as his proprietorship of the quirky Spectator. In the eleven-month interval between the completion of Siklos's manuscript and the appearance of this article, Black's reorganized American company, Hollinger International, jumped from twelfth position to ninth overall in total U.S. circulation. His empire already controls the largest number of newspaper titles in the world. Armed with a replenished war-chest from the proceeds of debt sell-offs and new equity issues, Hollinger International is back on the acquisition trail. In offering to buy out the Telegraph's minority shareholders, Black is seeking to consolidate his cash flow in order to float more paper and finance further purchases.
With the exemplary exception of one liberal editor's sudden removal in Australia, Siklos did not turn up any egregious firings of journalists who had displeased Black in one way or another. But since this book came out, there have been some notable departures from editorial and executive suites. In the case of editors overboard, critics imply they lacked the hard-right stuff required of Black's praetorian spear-chuckers. 1995 was a singularly barren year in the financial annals of newspaperdom; Hollinger's bottom-line performance was unimpressive. Given Black's strategic shift of his corporate base to generate highly-leveraged growth by tapping into the huge U.S. capital market, executives in under-performing sectors of the international holdings can expect to be dismissed summarily.
Weaned on the unregulated greed of the Argus founders' toll-gating and self-dealing and his own father's laudable capitalist instincts for share accumulation and managing value into corporate assets, Black has become one of the shrewdest international stock promoters of his generation. One strength of Siklos's dispassionately skeptical "business biography" is that it imparts to the uninitiated reader a comprehensive portrait of him as a consummate board-room operator and corporate shuffler. After a rather quiet interlude, Black now seems poised for an extended campaign of machinations and legerdemain; if one accepts Siklos's premise that his primary motivation is pecuniary, his "empire" is easily understood.
A few months ago, 170 people-many of them newsroom employees-lost their jobs after the closing of the controversial deal for the Sifton papers in Saskatchewan. True to form, Black and his operatives conducted furtive negotiations and paid less than market value to the feckless Sifton heir, whose unenviable task it was to announce the mass firings. The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson, ignoring his own paper's relentless staff reductions (except at the Report On Business) and sadly diminished news coverage, termed the Saskatchewan takeover
"the blackest days of that province's newspaper history....This particularly brutal exercise, a variation on what a certain publisher calls `drowning the kittens'...leaves the province's major newspapers entirely in the hands of one company, a highly undesirable state of affairs against which our country's anemic competition laws are apparently helpless."
Simpson's tarring of Black and his infamous euphemism was a double-barrelled warning shot. In 1980 Black tried to buy the Globe but was rebuffed by management and then outbid by the Thomson group. He is rumoured to covet it. In the aftermath of Hollinger's wholesale purchase of a grab-bag of U.S. and Canadian papers discarded by Thomson, industry insiders suspect he has reached a private understanding in the event of the Globe's being for sale. (Thomson, which last year sold off its extensive newspaper holdings in Britain, has embarked on a large-scale withdrawal from the newspaper business in favour of electronic publishing.) Simpson's rebuke also extended to his own editor-in-chief, William Thorsell, whose unabashed admiration for Black's political vagaries frequently fenestrates the Globe's editorial pages.
Control by Black of the Globe would make for a much better fit than his tension-ridden tenure chez Southam, where his fundamental incompatibility with the corporate culture is viewed as harmful. In his prologue, Siklos quoted Black's off-the-record comment to a group of Toronto stockbrokers in 1994 that the Southam franchises are "simply not very good newspapers." According to Black, in A Life in Progress, his 1980 "échec.ultimately facilitated a more advantageous position at Southam. The patient pursuit of good assets at reasonable prices usually has its rewards." Though he has famously derided the Globe as "the holy virgin of Canadian journalism", his stewardship of the Telegraph in the face of a potentially ruinous rivalry from Murdoch's Times is ample proof that he would be a much more adept manager-proprietor of the Globe than Ken Thomson (whose tepid proprietorship at the Times nearly resulted in its closure).
Part of Black's ethos is that newspapers and journalists fare much better under the supervision of an active proprietor than they do under an absentee. The Globe has dismantled much of its national and international coverage-having previously abandoned local news coverage and comprehensive sports reporting. The national edition of Toronto's "national" newspaper has less than 50,000 single-copy sales and subscriptions outside Ontario. A six-day paper in a seven-day competitive environment, the Globe has relinquished most of its retail advertising base and ignored lucrative opportunities such as a national Sunday magazine and a separate books supplement. Should Black get his hands on it, one thing is certain: he will not get it at the distress-sale price he habitually pays.
Meanwhile, Black and his Hollinger chief executive officer, David Radler, are feuding with Southam management; if they had their way, hundreds of jobs would disappear at Southam papers. Should Black prevail there, one can imagine the unleashing of a neutron-like implosion within the company's multi-layered corporate infrastructure. Recently, I asked Radler whether he was concerned that a Hollinger bid for a majority stake in Southam would be blocked by a federal government responding to howls of protest over massive concentration of ownership and monopolistic commercial practices, prompting a breakup of the Southam assets. Radler's blunt reply was, "It won't happen, but for a negative reason"; he indicated that Southam was being so poorly managed that he feared "no-one giving a damn." He blames Canada's high-tax policies and labour unions for increasing concentration.
Variously nicknamed "the Refrigerator" and "General Bull Moose", Radler says that individual owners can't stand up to the power of big unions, while "of every dollar that a company earns, 82 cents are taxed" away from owners; "if we keep on like this, we'll end up with the Swedish model-where ten families own all the economy." Radler's antipathy to "labour monopolies", Black's frequently voiced expressions of hostility vis-à-vis individual journalists and unpleasant characterizations of the profession in general, along with a spate of intemperate remarks directed towards protests by groups of journalists in his employ, have led to a sullen mutisme within the querulous ranks of Canadian reporters.
Under the circumstances in which it was written, it is hardly surprising that Shades of Black is imbued with a dual sense of diffidence. Discretion and restraint are the watchwords of Richard Siklos's detached narrative voice. Siklos also had to deal with the fact that
"Black is a naturally suspicious person....He does own shares in the paper I work for, but he only has an option to purchase a controlling interest. That's a chance I had to be willing to take....I deliberately set out not to have any personal feelings about the subject. I remember reading a quote from Peter Newman after his biography had been published and he was asked, `Do you like Black?' and he answered `Yes, I like him very much.' So, at the start, I looked at it as a job and not [to be] the friend of giants."
Unfortunately, the young biographer was unable to repress his resentment. Black's second wife declined to be interviewed; since his parents were dead and his only sibling refused to see Siklos, the book relies heavily on previously published sources. Indeed, Siklos is unsure to this day how much of his access to Black's friends and associates was warily meted out and monitored. Andrew Knight, the former Economist editor who reconnoitred the Telegraph takeover for Black, served for a time as his chief executive in Britain, and then, much to his displeasure, decamped a rich man for the employ of Rupert Murdoch, wrote to Black asking permission before consenting to Siklos's interview request. One confidante whose comments Black could not curtail was his ex-wife, Shirley, now known as Joanna, who did spend some time talking with Siklos; the bind being that many of her comments were given in confidence. Black's chess-like manoeuvres in trying to steer the game according to his rules had the effect of producing a palpable sympathy on the part of his biographer for the first Mrs. Black-and a corresponding dislike of her former husband.
Unfailingly polite, deferential, and soft-spoken, Siklos riddled his "objective, dispassionate chronicle" with a subtly subversive subtext. Through the use of apposition on pages 230-233, he managed to infer neo-Beaverbrookian airs, while carefully stitching in the counterpoint from a 1982 Saturday Night review by Black of Davie's and Chisholm's biography. Typically, Black's piece ended with an elegant, self-revelatory disavowal:
"Beaverbrook never outgrew a desire for the approval of his Canadian countrymen....[His] vitality and natural atavistic brilliance, his patriotism, courage, efficiency as an administrator, and flair as a financier and publisher are beyond question. He was also a prolific writer and public speaker of uneven abilities. Unfortunately, he was in all things, except matters of the utmost patriotic importance, almost wholly unscrupulous.... He will always remain a model of the panache and influence an aspiring media proprietor may seek to achieve, and of some of the excesses and frailties of character and judgement one would wish to avoid." Appended to this was an awkward conversational snippet in which Black archly compared his warm relations with Margaret Thatcher to his less felicitous rapport with her successor: "She was much more comfortable with people in my-if I may put it this way-socioeconomic echelon." Little wonder he chose not to communicate with Siklos after the book appeared in print (he was not shown a manuscript copy).
Siklos makes vague insinuations about Black's failed first marriage and other ambiguous aspersions-on his "inanimate style", hyperbolic tendencies, vainglorious remarks, class prejudices, and loyalties (he unsentimentally exposes Black's chivalrous obfuscations over the fact that his son and presumptive heir was born out of wedlock). Piecing all this together is a bit like trying to decipher code. As a consequence, the reader learns little about Black's relationship with his three children, except for an impression that it is distant. When asked directly whether he is a responsive father, Siklos replied, "He thinks he is." He knew the name of the Canadian boarding school from which Black's son had been expelled but chose not to disclose it. Instead, Joanna is quoted as saying her son "is a chip off the old block." And so on.
The childhood portrait in Shades of Black is a bit discursive and doesn't stray far from the familiar details related in Newman's book, except to gently debunk a couple of apocryphal childhood tales that he had accepted at face value. Siklos does add some sympathetic spin to the close father-son bond between Conrad and his father, George Montegu Black, Jr. In his press-lord compendium, Paper Tigers (a book that provided the subtitle for Shades of Black), the British author Nicholas Coleridge repeated advice given him by Black intimates: "To understand Conrad Black, you must examine his relationship with his father; the talents and disappointments of George Black have more to do with Conrad's motivation than any single factor." Both Newman and Siklos made use of a particularly telling quote from Black's late father: summing up his philosophy of dealing with big labour unions, Black père enthused, "If you can't turn around and snarl at these guys occasionally, they'll kick you to pieces." Future biographers will need to take a much closer look at this complex man whose business career was cut short in the aftermath of a power struggle with his senior partner, E. P. Taylor. The most revealing comments concerning Black's mother are to be found in his autobiography.
Though Siklos did uncover a remarkable coincidence involving Black's ancestors owning some shares in the original Telegraph shortly after it was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century, he didn't follow through; nor did he make much of Black's family business connections to the first Lord Rothermere, or Black's holding on to the corporate name from that business association, Western Dominion. There is an interesting, unexplored symmetry between Black's connections to the Rothermere empire and Rupert Murdoch's strong ties to the dominant Harmsworth brother, Northcliffe-ties that William Shawcross's Murdoch made full use of in relation to his subject's psychological make-up.
Neither Siklos nor Newman dared to excavate the hidden vein of Black's years on the couch. Newman alludes briefly to his relationship with a prominent figure in British and Canadian psychoanalysis, Clifford Scott. Though Black reveals a little of his psychological ordeals in A Life in Progress, some additional perspective might have been obtained from his friend and business associate Peter Y. Atkinson and-if Black gave clearance-from another psychoanalyst. Nor does Siklos go near the girlfriends; in fact, he doubts Black had much luck with women.
Scant attention is paid by Siklos to a dynamic Canadian role-model publisher, John Bassett. His depiction of the rollicking early partnership years between Black, Peter White, and Radler in the bush leagues of Canadian journalism is perfunctory and somewhat supercilious. No reference is made to the notorious Sherbrooke Record editorial calling for the legalization of marijuana. Had he checked with a wider range of "major-leaguers" who toiled in Sherbrooke, he might have gained a better opinion of Black's relationships with journalists. For instance, Hubert Bauch, now of the Gazette, recalls his salad days there indulging
"in a multiplicity of vices....Conrad is a hack at heart-he does care about journalism and he insists on high standards. If you write something well that is against his views, he'll run it and respect you for it."
Bauch is one of the few Canadian "big-paper" reporters willing to side with Black on the issue of "corporate bloat. I tell younger reporters that if you have a job twenty years from now in this business, you'll have Conrad to thank." Though Siklos had unrestricted access to John Fraser, he did not see fit to quote the urbane Toronto writer's favourable impressions of Black as proprietor: "Conrad is not a bad steward; in fact, his influence is just the opposite of degrading papers. I can't think of a property that he's bought that is worse off for his purchase." Coleridge's trenchant overview of Black in Paper Tigers offers a full range of witty and perceptive observations of the man he calls "a dreamer of deals".
Unlike Siklos, whose sense of discretion precluded frank physical descriptions, Coleridge regaled his readers with a graphic portrait:
"If you imagine a horizontal line across Conrad Black's face, from earlobe to earlobe [curiously, as does the cover photo on Shades of Black], you see that it divides into two unrelated sections. His eyes, and the primeval shape of his forehead, betoken vigour, cunning, strength of purpose and more than a scintilla of callousness. However, the mouth, and its tendency to curl up disdainfully when discussing ideologies contrary to his own, suggest fastidiousness, self-mockery, worldly-wise cynicism, and a certain intellectual narcissism....
"His voice has a lugubrious undertow that manages, in a highly idiosyncratic way, to convey considerable determination. Words are emphasized and underscored as though his conversation is being simultaneously transcribed, and he is signalling the necessity of italics to a stenographer. Sometimes, in full flow, he sounds like a New York police siren blaring across town....
"At dinner parties, he does not shun the opportunity to dominate the table with his filibusters on politics, history or anything else. Some people believe that Conrad Black weaves his tendentious theories as he goes along, purely for the linguistic satisfaction of being able to do so. Each topic is launched in a trail of provocative adjectives, that clatter behind his targets like railway carriages coupled to a steam engine."
For details of Black's bicultural Quebec odyssey, his autobiography and his biography of Duplessis provide a splendid concordance. Siklos also shies away from Black's "bohemian" years; even Newman included a couple of hilarious anecdotes from his bibulous period, as well as a fetching description of a colourful paramour of his, Anna Maria Marston, whom Siklos refers to anonymously. Since Black later experienced some nightmarish run-ins with the police, it is too bad that neither biographer bothered gleaning Nick Auf der Maur's reminiscences of a picaresque, purported episode at Ms. Marston's Casa Loma area apartment in Toronto.
As Michael Davie noted in his Times Literary Supplement review, Siklos's narrative "is taken up with blow-by-blow accounts of Black's three big acquisitions....These stories have been told before, but Siklos adds extra detail." But for a business book about a newspaper tycoon, it is curiously short on details about the actual papers. Again, Davie commented that while Black's restructuring methods are "lucidly explained .... Siklos...makes disappointingly little attempt to assess the effect of these robust measures on the quality of the newspapers thus reformed."
(Two negative impressions of Black's views on the proper role of newspapers come to mind. In his autobiography, he expressed such scorn for the Washington Post's paradigm of the newspaper as history's rough draft that a sensible reader might speculate whether Watergate would have been exposed at all had he been Woodward and Bernstein's employer. The other implicates Black indirectly: earlier this year, one of his left-wing journalistic antagonists, Linda McQuaig, gave a widely promoted speech to an audience of some six hundred people. The local paper, the Peterborough Examiner, a recent Hollinger acquisition from Thomson, chose not to cover the event. When challenged by irate readers, the paper's editor falsely claimed that McQuaig had denied his paper an interview.)
A couple of other business-related oversights in Shades of Black are worth mentioning. Though Siklos's opera bouffe version of Black's public slanging matches with Australian politicians is amusing-at one point he caught Black off-guard and quoted his threat to "hype the stock and sell"-much of the book is filled with atmospherics and clangorous repartee. Half-hearted attempts are made at analysing Black's close business and personal relationships with his five principal lieutenants, Radler, Atkinson, Peter White, Jack Boultbee, and Dan Colson. A fleeting reference to off-shore sheltering of possible capital gains from the Australian papers is not pursued; nor are other pertinent tax considerations concerning Black's byzantine corporate structures. I was surprised to learn that Siklos did not know which country Black was domiciled in for tax purposes-it's Canada.
But what is chiefly missing from this book is a thorough appreciation of his complex personality, his religious beliefs and platonic conversion to Catholicism, and his political commitments. Writing about Conrad Black without devoting a lot of space to his political beliefs is akin to portraying Hugh Hefner without asking about his sex life. The deadly serious backstage political tussles over his struggle for control at Southam and his recent public musings concerning Canada without Quebec are critical elements in his emergence as a significant political power-broker.
In his introduction to Paper Tigers, entitled "The Proprietor as Predator", Coleridge advances an important distinction between the fabled press lords of yore and today's titans:
"The great myth about modern proprietors
"The great myth about modern proprietors is that their power is less than it used to be. The fiefdoms of Beaverbrook, Northcliffe and Hearst, often invoked as the zenith of proprietorial omnipotence, were in fact smaller by every criteria than the enormous, geographically diffuse, multilingual empires of the latest newspaper tycoons. The profits and total circulations of the old-school proprietors were invariably lower, their papers thinner, the scope of their influence and news-gathering machines more local; none dominated so many world markets simultaneously as does Rupert Murdoch...[and] Conrad Black...."
Black is often accused of being bereft of a master plan, of being an improviser. When confronted with his non-grand plan approach to business-doing deals for the sake of doing deals-he resorts to military analogies. One he likes to trot out is Liddell Hart's theory of an expanding torrent, which can be likened to the rolling-stone-gathers-no-moss concept of acceleration. Another military comparison he enjoys has itsorigins in Caesar's map of the Battle of Alesia. He told Siklos that
"Caesar chased his enemies into this town and laid siege to them. But then a much larger enemy force came and laid siege to him. So you had two lines, a line of circumvallation and a line of contravallation ....
"He was between those two lines. He was keeping the inner group in and the outer group out, but it was making for an awful lot of fighting all the time....He'd be in the east and he'd be in the west....I'm joking. I'm not saying I'm in that kind of position. It's just that there's a lot going on at once."
Fourteen years ago, Peter Newman rounded out his final chapters on Black with a coffee-klatsch rendition of contemporary predictions of his trajectory. His cousin, the business executive Ron Riley, emphasized that he "wants to leave an imprint on history-that's his prime motivation."
His former schoolmaster and professor, Laurier Lapierre, was ominously less kind: "I don't think Conrad wants to be prime minister, but he really does want to be the power behind the throne and feels his money will buy him that. I don't think he will handle very well being thwarted or being denied that kind of role, and I don't think he will use his authority wisely. He is one of the few people I know for whom attaining power is an all-consuming goal. What Lord Acton meant in his famous epigram is that absolute power corrupts absolutely because there is no room for love.
"Once Conrad has finished consolidating his economic environment, he will attempt to create a significant political environment for himself. In the James Bond and John Le Carré stories, there is always some weird genius who has a nuclear bomb and is threatening to use it to sanctify mankind. Conrad is like that: he will apply his economic clout politically to repress what he considers the moral wrongs of the world."
If Black's business streak holds, he may be a billionaire by the turn of the century. Siklos's glib take on him is that he is an anachronism who nonetheless embodies "the archetype newspaper proprietor for the next millennium," which is to say that the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla has mutated. But into what? On the evidence, it seems clear he aspires to much more than being one of the slick multi-media megatycoons with whom we are familiar: Ted Turner, Murdoch, etc.. And unlike Italy's Berlusconi, Black is fairly scrupulous and has gravitas.
Of all the countries in which Black wields varying degrees of influence, Canada remains his most susceptible sphere. If, as Rupert Murdoch believes, globalization is partly Americanization, what will Black's role be in the uncertain unfolding of this nation's destiny? Part of the tension underlying the unresolved Desmarais-Black power struggle at Southam is connected to national politics. Black's financial and fund-raising contributions to the Reform Party, which Siklos completely ignores, suggest that were he to wrest editorial control of the Southam papers away from the federal-Liberal-allied Desmarais clan, he would use the considerable clout of those papers to undermine the Liberals and promote a right-wing agenda.
More troubling are Black's recent musings on Canada's future as a sovereign political entity. If we leave aside any notion that he is trying to insinuate some artful form of reverse psychology into the Canada-Quebec conundrum, Black's Canadian prognostications stand in stark contrast to his views on Britain's future within Europe. Now that his press empire's stock is trading on the New York Exchange, while he has gravitated towards the U.S., do his political pronouncements genuinely reflect our national interest or do they more closely mirror his own apparent self-interest?
Speaking to an audience at the University of Alberta in the week before last October's referendum, he sounded a sombre alarum:
"I still believe and I still hope Quebec will endorse that option next week. However, if these dreams, which many Quebeckers have shared too, are shattered, there will be much talk of liberation in Quebec. But it will, along with the disappointment and the sense of rejection, still be in some measure a liberation for us too....
"No longer having to squander an inordinate amount of our national energy in unrequited passion for our parting compatriots, our choices would be enviable. In particular, we could choose to flourish by merely jettisoning the Ozymandian wreckage of a failed bicultural state with the back-breaking and ultimately corrupt transfer payment system and the mad binge of political correctness that have gone with it. Without Quebec a majority of Canadians would be electors of Ralph Klein and Michael Harris. We would do much better economically without Quebec than Quebec would do without us. "We could also draw officially closer to the United States, with whom, if we chose, we could make a much more rewarding arrangement than we have had with an unappreciative Quebec.
"Canada could negotiate arrangements with the United States that would preserve our regional distinctiveness as Texas and New England have preserved theirs, would raise our ur standard of living, lower taxes, reduce our debt burden and doubtless involve a translation into U.S. from Canadian dollars that would be very advantageous to us. Just 220 years after its founding, the most conceptually and materially powerful country would be virtually born again geopolitically by gaining access to Canadian resources and population.
"Any U.S. president consummating such an arrangement would be the greatest builder of the American Republic since Jefferson bought much of the south and midwest from Napoleon. There would be ample incentive for the United States to be generous and the president of the day could achieve a great deal more for a good deal less than the federal German Chancellor Helmut Kohl accomplished when he successfully offered parity for the East German mark when Germany was reunified."
When this speech was excerpted in the Globe, someone had the presence of mind to bowdlerize the last two sentences. Black's ideological "soul-mate" at the Globe, William Thorsell, chimed in with his own political scenario:
"A Canada Party will appear to campaign for a mutually desired division of Confederation as we know it. This would see Canadians campaigning alongside Lucien Bouchard for Quebec sovereignty next time around....At some point, the Emperor of Confederation may lose enough of its clothing that some loyal Canadian will blurt out a more honest description of reality than has been heard since 1860. And then everything could change overnight."
Luckily, at least one Globe columnist drinks bottled water. In April, Andrew Coyne weighed in with a depressingly clear-eyed synopsis of current establishmentarian groupthink:
"So impatient has the political class become to confirm its acquiescence in our demise that it is no longer willing even to wait for Quebeckers to put the knife in....Not every member of the political class, or even most, actually courts secession. But all of them believe in it, if not as a probability, at least as a possibility. And believing it to be so, they are compelled to act in such a way as to invite it.
"This is the tragedy of Canada; the people in a position to save it are intellectually incapable of arousing themselves to its defence. They cannot, because they share exactly the same view of the country as those who would destroy it."
Whereas Richard Siklos chose to concentrate on corporate minutiae such as Black's multi-million-dollar New York apartment-for which the Hollinger shareholders are expected to foot the bill-Canadians have a right to demand more of an accounting from Mr. Black on the political side of the ledger. It seemed odd to me that Siklos didn't divulge the nickname most often applied to Black. According to him, it is "Conrad the Barbarian"-presumably because of his figurative habit of sacking the slaves (Beaverbrook's favoured phrase), laying waste the temples, and stripping bare the treasuries after his conquests. During the vicious price-cutting war between the Telegraph and the Times a couple of years ago, a toney London newspaper caught in the squeeze between the two warring broadsheets, the Independent, ran a series of promotional ads in which the trademark front-page title-blocks of the two papers were altered to read The Conrad Black and The Rupert Murdoch.
The ads were effective. Literate British readers-during another Tory ditherer's tenancy in 10 Downing Street-were invited to recall Baldwin's denunciations of Beaverbrook's and Rothermere's irresponsible power games. If, as Northcliffe implied, newspaper ownership is a legitimate form of governance, then proprietors must be brought to answer for their political machinations. At the end of Richard Siklos's book, Black is quoted as saying his financial gambling days are over: "Don't bet the company" was his proffered advice; well, to paraphrase that, "Don't bet the country, either, Mr. Black." Canada is not a game of quoits.
In his extraordinary autobiography, which I found to be the most fascinating man-of-the-world memoirs ever published by a Canadian, Black, who is an avid amateur psychoanalyst as well as an historian, recounted a conversation with one of his star-studded corporate advisory board members, Henry Kissinger:
"...without putting on the airs of a psychiatrist, I suggested to Henry Kissinger...that Mr. Nixon was a case illustrative of the truth of the old adage that for every ten men who can stand adversity, only one can stand success and that, in some profound way he was uncomfortable with himself ....Henry Kissinger agreed but added that there were five more-or-less distinct sides to Richard Nixon's personality, which coexisted easily most of the time....He said that sometimes Nixon would phone him late in the evening and speak for over an hour, and two or more of these aspects of his personality would sequentially prevail."
Not having had the pleasure of attending one of Black's all-night, libatory conclaves, I have not witnessed his multi-faceted personality at play-journalist, political theorist, economic thinker, vehemently loyal friend, romantic dreamer, internationalist, military amateur, worldly schemer, and religious meditator. As promised in its title, Siklos's book delivers glimpses of a man unwilling to share inner thoughts with a writer he could not rely on. A more rigorous examination of the evidence already available would have yielded a more satisfying portrait. "Now, he is the most successful general who discerns most clearly such mistakes when made by his enemies, and adapts his attack to the character of his own forces, not always assailing them openly and in regular array, but acting according to the circumstances of the case. And the greatest reputation is gained by those stratagems in which a man deceives his enemies most completely, and does his friends most service."-Brasidas, in Thucydides' history.

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