Business

BLACK’S ‘TORPEDO’

Only the threat of jail brought David Radler to heel,

PETER C. NEWMAN August 29 2005
Business

BLACK’S ‘TORPEDO’

Only the threat of jail brought David Radler to heel,

PETER C. NEWMAN August 29 2005

BLACK’S ‘TORPEDO’

Business

Only the threat of jail brought David Radler to heel,

PETER C. NEWMAN

WHEN DAVID RADLER became Canada’s most treacherous informer last week, it was a stunning repudiation of his 36-year partnership with Conrad Black, the portentous power broker who turned himself into a weapon of mass self-destruction. Though he may not admit it in court, Radler was more than Black’s fiduciary partner. He was his alter ego, his hatchet man, the guy who devised most of the fancy manoeuvres that created the world’s third-largest media empire, then turned it into a junkyard of broken dreams and shattered promises.

Unlike Black, who courted the spotlight, Radler refused most interviews, pretending he was a simple man of God on a private mission with no name. I was one of the exceptions. He would often take me to lunch (usually hot dogs and a Diet Pepsi), and a few times invited me to his house on Vancouver’s prestigious Marine Drive, mostly for Jean Charest fundraisers. To my surprise, this corporate fire-eater’s home was decorated with a sensitively chosen Group of Seven collection.

As we began to talk, it came out that his father had owned Au Lutin Qui Bouffe, a popular Montreal restaurant in the 1960s that attracted patrons by having tiny piglets run around the floor. David’s first job was to create a handicrafts marketing program for the Curve Lake Indian Reserve, north of Peterborough, Ont., which he did so successfully that he later developed similar schemes for 30 other First Nation bands. He joined Black in buying the Sherbrooke Daily Record, where he is remembered mainly for the day an employee came into his office with a list of grievances. Instead of listening to him, Radler had two cents taken off his next paycheque for wasting a sheet of paper. He went on to create the three-man news department for his and Conrad’s chain of 21 daily Sterling papers that limited editorial staff to an editor, sports writer and general reporter, with the balance of copy provided by news wires. In 1978, when a Pacific Western Airlines jet crashed at Cranbrook, B.C., killing all 43 on board, the Sterling-owned paper there covered the tragedy with Canadian Press dispatches. Adam Zimmerman, then a Southam director who had to deal with him, described

Radler and his executives as “some very tough guys. They’re not people. They’re torpedoes.”

When I asked Radler how he picked the newspapers he chose to buy, his explanation was simple. He would move into a likely property and count the desks, calculating how many reporters he could afford to fire to still provide enough editorial matter to separate the ads.

When the Hollinger operation went international, Radler took over the U.S. operation, which consisted mostly of the kind of small papers that he and Black are now accused of flipping to themselves for illegal, tax-free profit. Radler was involved in every one of the corporate shenanigans currently being challenged by the courts and SEC investigators.

David Radler was lively and interesting, but his notion that cost-cutting constitutes great publishing is not going to win him

many mourners at the tail end of his career. Now that he has agreed to plead guilty to the initial indictments aimed at the companies whose chief strategic animator he became, I hope that investigators take note of the stunning accusation made by a former publisher of the Jerusalem Post. With scarcely controlled fury he claimed that when the paper was under Radler’s wing, he confiscated a fund voluntarily collected from readers to help impecunious Israeli citizens, and used the money to finance his campaign to wrest an honourary doctorate from ajerusalem university. (Radler regarded the Post as his exclusive domain, and when Conrad asked to see the paper, Radler obliged by arranging for him to receive it by a sea-mail.) He held Black in little awe and less respect. He once confided to me that he thought “Conrad has a psychological age of 80.”

Radler is the toughest-minded executive I ever encountered. Only facing up to 35 years of jail time brought him to heel. When he agreed to plead guilty, he knew the jig was up, and that only by co-operating with the authorities would he have a chance to limit the damage. He has come a long way from the Curve Lake Indian Reserve. Iffl