COLUMN

Sharp elbows and the media barons

Allan Fotheringham June 26 1989
COLUMN

Sharp elbows and the media barons

Allan Fotheringham June 26 1989

Sharp elbows and the media barons

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

There was a time when I used to turn to the sports pages first. Mainly because I like blood. There’s nothing like a forearm smash to the schnozz on the boards to remind us of the ethic of our national sport as laid down by the immortal Conn Smythe: “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice.” It’s what has made hockey what it is today: pro wrestling on a frozen pond.

But even if there is no fisticuffs where there ain’t supposed to be fisticuffs, the sports pages always offered good red claret: coaches sacked on Christmas Eve, Harold Ballard doing something monumentally stupid, horses breaking down, athletes either drunks or drug addicts, clubs going bankrupt and being sold or moved or closed down. The sports pages, for the real voyeur, was where the action was—none of that dull politics.

No more, however. The sports pages look like the obits today in comparison with the real abattoir: the business pages. That’s where the massacres are taking place. Corporate giants all over the carpet, expiring and taking the last rites. Biggies larger than Brazil breathing their last before our eyes and brokers and lawyers and consultants and takeover artists stomping on their corpses.

Time magazine. Remember Time magazine? The most arrogant journal ever devised, the journal that used to destroy politicians and pick presidents and stick-handle minor wars and was feared by most everybody who could read. The mighty organization that spawned Life and Fortune and Sports Illustrated and People magazine and a cable-TV empire and what else. Time Inc. today is being shopped around like a two-bit whore, tossed in the Wall Street winds, a mere bit of flotsam in the wild world of commerce.

Time, it seems, was about to merge with Warner Communications, which would bring into being the largest information outfit on the globe. This, apparently, was supposed to be good for me and thee, not to mention the Time shareholders. Just before the papers could be signed, Paramount Communications made a

hostile bid for Time. Paramount, until the week previous, was known as Gulf + Western, which on Wall Street was popularly known as EnGulf + Devour.

Wall Street, you have to realize, is rather like the hen yard. Once one chicken bleeds, all the rest jump on the wounded one. Once it was realized that Time could no longer beat up on world leaders but was just a hunk c' -orporate meat, the vultures moved in. General Electric contemplated a bid. So did Robert Maxwell and Sir James Goldsmith, big media hitters from Britain, not to mention Rupert Murdoch.

Bertelsmann, the West German media moguls, took a look, as did Hachette, the big French publisher.

Best of all, one of those hunkering in for the kill was Nestlé, the Swiss food company. Delicious revenge! Time owned by a chocolate company, its gooey concoctions dripping over all that acid prose. Where is Henry Luce now?

Whirring in his grave fast enough to whip up a fudge sundae.

The guy responsible for all this is from Winnipeg. Ross Johnson wasn’t content last year with being a cool millionaire as boss of the RJR Nabisco conglomerate (and a close friend of B. Mulroney). He wanted to be a billionaire and so tried to buy out his own company with someone else’s money and a supposed personal profit of $100 million. When the big hitters from Wall Street came in and taught him a lesson and eventually bid $25 billion and bounced him, he confessed he was only “a country boy” compared to what he had just seen.

What the country boy had demonstrated was that there was no one too big to be taken over. Conrad Black, who owns the London Daily Telegraph and The Spectator and Saturday Night and a piece of The Financial Post, has just bought the Jerusalem Post and is nibbling at the Daily Express group and has started in with five per cent of Southam Newspapers. Murdoch buys an empire the size of Siberia every week. The Thomson empire gobbles up whole companies like salted peanuts.

With mighty Time just a piece of jetsam on the waves of life, this is more fun than floor hockey. Sony of Japan is rumored to be taking a jump at Paramount. Three major Wall Street firms have been ranging Europe looking for a big media house to attack Paramount—presumably on the instructions of Time. It is just a financial version of looking for a Dave (The Hammer) Schultz, brokerage firms searching for their own Dave (Tiger) Williams.

The land of leveraged buy-outs and hostile takeovers and poison pills and white knights, you see, is not much different at all from the arena where Conn Smythe set the rules. Glen Sather had his resident goons ready on the bench to retaliate if anyone dared muss up Wayne Gretzky’s features, and the world of finance operates by the same rules. If supposedly pristine Time is jumped by some vulgar Hollywood type, the hired mercenaries called investment bankers go over the boards to retaliate and launch their own takeover raids.

The guys at Paramount, being over 21, know this and keep their elbows high, rather like Chris Chelios seeing Ron Hextall coming out of the net bearing a chopping axe in the final seconds. It’s all the same, quite elemental.

I’ve altered the order in which I read the newspaper sections these days, but nothing much has changed—they just have different numbers on the backs of the sweaters.