NEWSMAKERS

THE NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR CONRAD BLACK

JOHN FRASER December 17 2007
NEWSMAKERS

THE NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR CONRAD BLACK

JOHN FRASER December 17 2007

NEWSMAKERS

THE NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR CONRAD BLACK

JOHN FRASER

It’s the Sum I can’t get out of my mind. The loot. The money he is supposed to have stolen, is convicted of stealing—it may be as low as US$2.9 million. This is cash, in the form of newspaper “non-compete” payments, that Conrad Black apparently failed to pass along to the shareholders of Hollinger International.

It’s a lot of money, for sure, especially for someone like me who had three daughters at university during the period of the taking and is still trying to rebuild the family’s pathetic “fortunes.” On another level, though, it is a mere trifle, a “pinprick” to quote Lord Black of Crossharbour himself when he was talking of the losses at Saturday Night magazine when I was the editor and he was the proprietor.

During that time I had my sums to deal with too. I lost him at least $2.9 million (in real Canadian dollars) in commissioned but unpublished articles, as well as forcing up the page counts of Saturday Night without supporting advertising. Maybe I lost him twice that amount, or slightly less than twice that. He took it all with hardly a hint of a whine because he believed it was an important magazine with a great history. Some of this modest largesse staved off a mortgage foreclosure of one distinguished columnist; for another writer, though annoyed his article didn’t get published, I know for a fact that he was able to make an alimony payment just in the nick of time; for another it was a needed holiday that ended up saving a marriage.

So there are profits and losses in this cruel world, and even though I know Judge Amy St.

Eve in far away Chicago will not understand the equation, in my view of the world Conrad Black balanced out his debts ages ago.

I’d even say if there was fairness in this world that there was still some credit in the bank. To put him in prison is ridiculous, but prison is precisely the place that is looming for him. It makes as much sense as convicting a man over hubris as much as any perceived wrongdoing.

Tempus fugit! It has been 20 years since I began my labours in his employment at Saturday Night and 13 since I left. It has been just over 50 years since he rescued me from a bully in the tuck shop at Upper Canada College in Toronto when I was 12, a feat in which he never raised

a hand but simply unleashed a fusillade of five syllable words. So astonished was my tormentor that he eased up on his grip and I was able to escape even before he was called a “pusillanimous poltroon.”

Just over 10 years ago, as the new owner of the Southam newspaper chain, he reaffirmed that chain’s magnificent 1963 gift to the University of Toronto and Massey College in the form of the Southam journalism fellowships. Reaffirmed? He rearmed them and increased their value so that mid-career journalists continued to have a chance to go back to school and learn new skills without the threat of a daily deadline for eight months. Conrad understood—almost instinctively— that it was a palpably Good Thing to keep going, so he not only kept them going, he made them better.

I think of all this during the days leading up to The Sentencing. I think of what a good proprietor he was to Saturday Night during my tenure and those of my successors, and to The Spectator magazine in England under Charles Moore and his successors. And as I think of those happy days, I also ponder the calamity and quagmire he is in now, for “stealing” US$2.9 million of shareholders’ sums,

“THE DEPTH OF RESOLVE TO CLEAR HIS NAME MEANS MORE TO HIM THAN LIFE ITSELF’

and for “obstructing justice” in the United States by packing up his office property in Canada. Maybe I am the only one who sees the tragedy here, the tragedy and the disconnect, but I know in my bones whatever sentence Judge St. Eve passes on my old chum, long or short, it would be profoundly wrong.

I know, I know. God, do I know. I have heard all the arguments and set pieces, taken in all the terrible tales of arrogance, greed, false entitlement, shady dealing. All of them, so far as I am concerned, still do not add up to a prison sentence. I wrote about all this in my own letter to the judge, appealing—like 100 others amongst his friends, for an extension of Conrad’s currently curtailed freedomof-movement until the appeal process has been exhausted.

“You’ve been loyal to a fault,” said a mutual acquaintance who then went on to explain how foolish it is to have any sympathy for the Blacks and how damaging it will be for my “career” if I don’t disown him. As Robert Fulford famously observed, “The Blacks have turned schadenfreude into an English word.” Even Conrad admits that mothers in Canada and England can now use his spectre to frighten little children into eating their spinach or Brussels sprouts. In female monsterdom, Barbara Amiel Black is now up there with Lucrezia Borgia and Agrippina the Younger, although no one yet has found a parallel to Karla Homolka, but give it time. An article in the Toronto Star by Susan Kastner as a kind of counterpoised attack to Tom Bower’s portrait in Conrad & Lady Black was more than halfway there. The road to hell, it turns out, is not paved with good intentions, but the slings and arrows and unsubstantiated anecdotes of outraged journalists who the Blacks may never have met, or harmed, or influenced, or even been misquoted by.

The fault, in Conrad’s case, certainly lies in part with himself, but curiously it also lies with his stars. How many times have I been told that all along the downward snake-slide he has been on over the past two years, there were safe enough junctures for him to exit, cut his losses and get on with his life? All of them he eschewed: an apology here, a sop to shareholders there, and everywhere

a new face of humility, frugality, national pride and domestic rectitude. The problem is the man doesn’t think he has done anything wrong, or at least not so wrong that he deserves to go to prison. And if you don’t think you have done anything wrong and your name and honour are precious to you, then even misjudging the degree of venom that attends upon the mere mention of your name may simply not penetrate.

The tragedy here is not the absurdity of putting such a person as Conrad Black in prison. The tragedy is in what has been lost, partly through Conrad’s own misunderstanding of the temper of our times and partly from the distemper of the new devouring classes that wrap themselves in the garb of shareholder protectionists or corporate governance vigilantes. If Conrad Black has erred by doing too little to understand what he was up against and thereby sacrificed a publishing empire, then they also stand in the dock for destroying that empire and extinguishing any hope whatsoever for the beleaguered shareholders.

I’m with journalist Mark Steyn on this one.

There are no widows and orphans complaining about their life savings having been obliterated by Conrad’s alleged and convicted skulduggery. There are only the friends and allies of the Tweedy Browne Co. LLC brigade whose incessant baying on behalf of “shareholders’ rights” so rattled the government and judicial system in the U.S. that Black’s newspaper empire was, amazingly enough, allowed to fall into the clutches of real raptors. Thus it was that Richard Breeden and Gordon Paris—the vigilantes of corporate governance—came to devour an enterprise that was capable of changing for the better the face of English-language journalism. Even if you think Conrad Black is getting everything he deserves, you still have to stand back in awe at the unconscionable sums that have been skimmed off these companies and into pockets that do not belong to the famously abused shareholders.

In England, in the circle that once welcomed Conrad and Barbara, it was fashionable at the time of the verdict to liken his lordship to Augustus Melmotte, the dark and vulgar villain of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Melmotte whose cynicism and posturing shored up a falsely perceived fortune and whose ruin was widely cele-

brated. The veteran journalist William ReesMogg went North American in his parallelism: Conrad was Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This was just cloud-cuckoo, as people who have followed Black’s career and read their Fitzgerald with an ounce of intelligence would know. They are all wrong, it seems to me, because they are missing at least one and possibly two dimensions in the character of Conrad Black that transpose and mitigate most of the negative traits he is thought by many to be as guilty of as fraud and the miscarriage of justice. They miss the adventurer capable of great courage under fire. They miss the almost reckless loyalist to friends and causes. And they miss the depth of resolve to clear his name, which most consider a joke, but which I suspect means more to him than life itself.

There actually is a wonderful literary figure that fits the bill far better than Jay Gatsby or Augustus Melmotte. Think Toad. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian classic The Wind in the Willows. Toad with his dreams of grandeur that were always getting him into great adventures and greater trouble. Toad whose friends were always warning him to slow down and be more careful. Toad who was beloved and despaired of in equal portions by dear old Badger. Toad whose beautiful home, Toad Hall, was despoiled by the greedy and selfrighteous weasels and stoats. Toad who was incorrigible and quite wonderful right to the end of the tale. Like Toad, Conrad Black always sought the open road, and life was never dull around him. Like Toad, he bragged too much. Like Toad, he had regular brushes with the more judicious and cautious side of business and society, but always seemed to triumph. And also like Toad, he has been brought to ruin as all around him the sanctimonious choruses of “I told you so” and “None too soon” and “Just what he deserves” can be heard a mare usque ad mare... and beyond.

Conrad faces a cruel business in the months and years ahead. But he is a resilient man, and the way he has comported himself throughout this ordeal, which bordered on a nobility even his detractors grudgingly acknowledged, suggests that he will survive whatever lies ahead. And just like Toad, I believe, he will rise again. M