Columns

Lord of his realm

Conrad Black loves pomp and circumstance, possesses a low opinion of modesty and has the courage of his condescensions

Peter C. Newman June 4 2001
Columns

Lord of his realm

Conrad Black loves pomp and circumstance, possesses a low opinion of modesty and has the courage of his condescensions

Peter C. Newman June 4 2001

Lord of his realm

Conrad Black loves pomp and circumstance, possesses a low opinion of modesty and has the courage of his condescensions

Columns

Peter C. Newman

Conrad Black’s recent decision to cut his Canadian roots was prompted not so much by having a compelling reason to leave, as not having a persuasive reason to stay.

Canadians have either demonized him or hung him with unrealistic aspirations of their own, such as my good-natured attempt to dub him dean of the Canadian Establishment, when that wasn’t the “tide” he savoured. His field of dreams became too narrow in Canada, so he took up his claim to being a citizen of the world, and decanted himself to London, the last place on earth where behaving like an aristocrat is still permissible.

Conrad is an unashamed elitist. He regards being designated a Lord, as well as behaving like one, as his due—and when some pipsqueak politician like Jean Chrétien vetoed his beatification, he pocketed his marbles and left the neighbourhood. Such pretensions aside, Black is first and always an entrepreneur on a grand scale, and as such, has been wildly successful. His ability to turn newspapers into money machines is particularly impressive in an age when their ancient technology has condemned them as flag carriers of the Old Economy. He purchased the Southam chain for about $1 billion, significantly improved its papers, then sold it to Izzy Asper for $3.3 billion. His Chicago Group, including the Sun-Times, ably run by Conrad’s partner, David Radier, is now worth $1.2 billion, having been bought for $280 million in 1994.

London’s The Daily Telegraph, control of which Black acquired for $69 million in 1985, is now conservatively estimated to be worth $2 billion. The late Robert Maxwell, who was no slouch at buying newspapers at a discount, described the purchase as “history’s biggest fish, caught with history’s smallest hook.”

On the other side of his fiscal ledger is the more than $150 million lost so far on the National Post, which he launched against all odds before selling 50 per cent last year to Asper. While the paper, to which I occasionally contribute, has not met its financial objectives, its sprighdy approach has revolutionized Canadian journalism.

That Black should covet a cushioned seat in the British House of Lords is entirely in character. A tenured Anglophile, he had his friend the Duke of Norfolk approve his family crest and feels comfortable firmly entrenched in the tradition of other Canadian press barons, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson, who traded Canadian winters for British peerages.

Conrad has been on the “lordship” training track most of his life, having originally been groomed by tycoon John

(Bud) McDougald, who kept a permanent suite at Claridge’s, London’s premier hotel, and reportedly lent the Queen his Phantom VI Rolls for official occasions. He showed Conrad how to organize intimate lunches at the Turf, his favourite private London club that boasted 16 dukes among its members. (Conrad now tends to favour the Athenaeum or Whites.) His British mentors have included the late Malcolm Muggeridge (who once defined the perfect government as “an oligarchy tempered by assassination”), Margaret Thatcher and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. These and other friends claim that Conrad is ideally qualified for the House of Lords: he loves pomp and circumstance, knowing how to create it as well as recognizing its value; he has a low opinion of modesty; he has no ambivalence about being rich; he has the courage of his condescensions; and he can outwit, outcharm, or if necessary, out-bully anybody, anywhere.

Black also has an astonishing knowledge of British history. He dazzles his entourage with such sleights of mind as rhyming off the names and tonnages of every ship involved on both sides of Sir Francis Drake’s 1588 confrontation with the Spanish Armada, can name all the kings and queens of England in reverse order, as well as every minister of France’s five republics.

Black has always surrounded himself with things British. The $4-million Georgian home he built for himself in Toronto was designed by the Cambridge-trained architect Lord Llewelyn-Davies; its grand fireplace features 17th-century hand carvings by Grinling Gibbons, who did most of the decorative work at Blenheim Palace and Hampton Court. Black’s children, Jonathan, Alana and James, attended British schools, and launched, or plan to launch their careers overseas. Conrad and his wife, Barbara Amiel, who is equally adept at the British upper-class social amenities, now live in a $7-million, 11-bedroom London mansion that once belonged to the renegade Australian financier Alan Bond. Their presence is de rigueur at London’s top social functions. If Conrad and Barbara are at a party, you know you’re on the right list.

In recent years, Conrad Black has increasingly seen himself as an international operator, and was busy transferring his presence to the world stage, long before Jean Chrétiens hissy fit about his tide. With his permanent move to London, he has at last become exacdy what he wants to be.

Instead of remaining a sub-arctic Horatio Alger in a minor middle power that runs on envy, he now ranks as a major player, based in a major country, running major newspapers that influence major events. In other words, not just a student of historic trivia, but an animator of the history of our times.