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Lord in Vain

When Conrad Black became a press lord, then a real lord, his ambition seemed to be to leave the sullied world of business behind. Nice try.

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Baron Black of Crossharbour.  

Mogul pathos is rare. But Conrad Black, amid the destruction of his media empire and with the publication of his magnum opus, a 1,280-page biography of Franklin Roosevelt, almost arouses such pitying and tender feelings.

Black, more than any of his peers—those exalted number crunchers—may be the true Charles Foster Kane of moguls. Grand, dismissive, self-important, striving, humorless, full of social and political zeal (“bullying, bombastic, verbose and vain,” according to the Guardian), Black has been interested in far greater things than mere media. Stature is what he’s sought: standing, significance, importance—especially among other men of standing, significance, and importance.

Hero-worshiping has been his avocation. His FDR book—although an abiding conservative, Black adores the aristocratic, era-dominating Roosevelt—while overly long and orotund in style (the prose defines the man), is, quite likely, the best and most well-received biography ever written by a sitting CEO. Beyond Roosevelt, Black has also nurtured an obsession with Napoleon (never a good sign) and, apocryphally or not, was rumored to have bought at auction Napoleon’s pickled penis (he is an inveterate buyer of historical knickknacks and relics).

He rose through the ranks of no-account Canadian newspapers—running them with ordinary bottom-line ruthlessness (asked what Black had contributed to newspapers, a key associate once said, “The three-man newsroom, and two of them sell ads”)—to become one of the world’s reigning newspaper publishers. The Telegraph in London, among the largest English-language (and right-leaning) quality papers, and the Jerusalem Post, among the most importantly placed papers in world affairs, gave Black his grand, or grandiloquent, stature.

Gaining such stature (and ultimately jettisoning most of his Canadian holdings), he became, all things considered, a pretty good proprietor (“a benign, applauded beast,” according to one British press commentator). Even though he is a suffer-no-fools, intellectually aggressive, absolutely confident right-wing man, he has, mostly, not interfered with his newsrooms. Or his idea of interference has been to write famously turgid and pompous letters to the editor of his publications. Rod Liddle, the ornery left-leaning columnist in the Spectator, the most influential and stylish opinion journal in the U.K., which Black-controlled Hollinger International (although Black recently resigned as CEO, he is still the controlling shareholder) also owns, recently described Black as a near-ideal media boss (“I have never worked in a place where there is less pressure to follow a particular line,” declared Liddle). Harold Evans, the grandee of British journalism, also jumped to Black’s defense.

In the old-fashioned, Tory tradition, Black has seemed not much interested in influencing the views of the masses (nor has he appeared to have much talent for clever or commercial propaganda), but rather those of other men of influence. He has been one of the world’s great patrons of the neoconservative view (Euro-skeptical, pro-Israel, free-market), keeping such like-minded acolytes (or is he their acolyte?) as Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle, William Buckley, and George Will on his company’s various and shadowy payrolls. Indeed, his shareholders have unwittingly contributed to a wide range of conservative think tanks and causes.

His moguldom has been a rare one—with a message to impart, and a role to uphold, and a circle to nurture.

Of course, then he was caught with his hand in the till.

“I’m being pilloried as if I was a scoundrel. I am not a scoundrel,” he said recently, echoing Nixon, as the various financial and accounting schemes at his company and its complex subsidiaries and related concerns began to come apart.

With some critical interpretation, this might be true. He’s just been above business—at least business as an end in itself—in the way that the high-minded, and the British, or the would-be British, are sometimes proud to be. This seemed to be what he was saying when, in November, he railed against the new corporate governance state. “Corporate-finance zealots,” he called the investors who were hounding him and the various agencies, including the SEC, that were suddenly investigating him (or, alternately, “corporate-governance terrorists”). The bookkeepers of the world were out to get him.


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