Lord in Vain

Baron Black of Crossharbour.Photo: Globe Photos

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.

It was definitely bad. In a not-very-artful grab, he had siphoned off at least $30 million by declaring a noncompete payment as a personal fee rather than a corporate asset. And every day there seemed to be more unraveling. The opaque complexities of the Hollinger holdings were the opaque complexities of, well, a scoundrel.

At the same time, this scoundrelness, this Kozlowskiness, was somehow hard to ascribe to a man who was on a book tour to promote a biography of obvious merit and substantial scholarship.

The book declared his virtue and his seriousness—his special status. And yet, obviously, blatantly, Mr. Serious had grabbed as many over-the-top and over-the-line corporate perks as he could. The houses (estates) in London, Palm Beach, Manhattan, and Toronto, paid for by Hollinger. The jet, with a $3 million decorating bill. The $8 million in FDR memorabilia purchased by Hollinger shareholders (to be sure, a more tasteful misuse of corporate monies than Kozlowski’s shower curtain). The 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. The wife—Barbara Amiel, a right-wing columnist who became a Telegraph star, who last year told Vogue, “I have an extravagance that knows no bounds.” And, hardly least of all, the peerage that came with being a mogul in Britain. This must have been near the crowning achievement of his moguldom. When his political enemies in Canada threatened to block his ability to accept his seat in the British House of Lords, Black—now Baron Black of Crossharbour—merely gave up his Canadian citizenship (Canada was, he pronounced, an “uncompetitive, slothful, self-righteous, spiteful … envious nanny-state, hovering on the verge of dissolution and bankruptcy”).

Still, perhaps, the perks were also, with a little interpretation, about being a serious man. Likely he saw material opulence going hand-in-hand with public eminence (a view prevalent among Tories as well as rock stars). It was not even, perhaps, about wealth, but persona. He was an international man of great affairs—if that be public hubris, so be it. Where other moguls might have been meeting with analysts and sales forces and marketing advisers, Lord Black was hosting dinner parties (one needed great homes for great dinner parties) for the important people and the great minds (ideally the great right-wing minds) of the age.

He was a press lord—rather than an ordinary mogul. He was a press lord in the tradition of Beaverbrook and Thomson, who, also leaving Canada, achieved their true status, as press lords—and real lords—in London.

Indeed, in the U.S., the world’s most coveted media market (the true battleground for media moguls), he was only ever a sketchy figure—at least up until the scandal broke. He had the No. 2 paper in Chicago, once tried (ineptly) to buy the Daily News (from the ruins of Robert Maxwell’s bankrupt empire), and has been associated with various gadfly efforts in Manhattan (a brief attempt to buy the New York Observer, a small investment in the small New York daily, the Sun). But in any sort of concerted or high-profile way, he pretty much stayed out of Dodge.

“He saw the newspaper business as a business for serious and high-minded men, rather than a business about cost-cutting, diminishing returns, and fearsome technological challenges.”

To be a player in U.S. media, to achieve standing and influence in the mogul wars here, would have required a capital-intensive investment in entertainment and technology and complex management and salesmanship. American media was, finally, the realm of bean counters—where was the romance in that? Or, belying his bulldog, suffer-no-fools demeanor, his resistance to the broader media business might well have highlighted an anomaly of temperament. The imperative of the polymorphous media business was dominance, whereas Lord Black was, in his way, looking for acceptance—a desire causing him no end of grief in London, where, of course, he is seen as an interloper.

He did not want to take on (or remake) the Establishment but rather to join it. To be Henry Kissinger’s friend. To be a doyen of conservative café society. To wear ermine in the House of Lords.

So he stayed in the newspaper business. And continued to regard the newspaper business as a business for serious and high-minded and well-connected men (which also supported the exaggerated lifestyles and ambitions of their owners)—rather than a business about cost-cutting, diminishing returns, and fearsome technological challenges.

The romance of newspapers brought him down—that, and the unromantic Rupert Murdoch.

William Randolph Hearst, in the figure of Charles Foster Kane, lost touch with reality, not least of all because newspapers in that day were such an extreme concentration of raw power, vast influence, and disproportionate profit margins. The Daily Telegraph, when Black bought it in 1985 (he bailed out the then-owners from a cash squeeze, which enabled him to take control of the paper in a sweet deal), was selling 1,169,000 copies a day. This was power and cash flow.

But in 1993, Murdoch, who with his down-market Sun had helped ruin Robert Maxwell (the last British mogul found with his hand in the till) in the English-tabloid price wars, launched the quality-paper price wars, pitting his slashed-price Times against Black’s Telegraph.

In the U.K. there has long been a sense of the sacrosanct about the “quality” paper—it is as ingrained as class. Upmarket papers with upmarket readers should have been resistant to price issues. But the Telegraph got whacked—losing millions of dollars a year in the Murdoch price wars and a quarter-million copies in daily circulation.

But it was not just Murdoch. Or it was Murdoch along with the fact that the age of British newspapers as wildly profitable businesses was over. That gains in profit and circulation would come only by taking them from other newspapers and other newspaper owners. And Murdoch, because he wasn’t merely in the newspaper business—and, perhaps too, because his attention wasn’t diverted by an interest in the House of Lords—could lay siege to Black and the Telegraph.

Hence, all of sudden, Conrad Black had an accounting discrepancy. On the one hand, there was the cost of his life of influence and letters and grand bearing and his lifestyle of the rich and famous, and on the other hand, the lesser profits (and by the recession, the losses) from the lower circulation and aging readership—most readers are in their sixties—of the Telegraph.

These are the remains of the day.

Black isn’t the first press lord to be ousted from his realm by the long decline of newspapers, but he may be among the last, and among the grandest—and, too, among the most self-deluded.

Lord in Vain