Black humours

Shades of Black by Richard Siklos Heinemann, pounds 20; Canadian grocer to Telegraph mogul. Robert Winder contemplates the career of a kitten drowner
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The Independent Culture
Anyone attempting a biography of a press baron is to some extent engaged on a lengthy job interview. Perhaps this is why the careers of the Murdochs, Maxwells and Blacks of this world are so frequently narrated - not many journalists (and publishers) take the trouble to produce books about, say, the world's great biscuit moguls. Perhaps, too, this is why such biographies tend to be either fawning or vitriolic: it is axiomatic to some that newspaper magnates are heroic visionaries of the media age, while to others it is just as clear that they are ruthless, venal crooks.

Richard Siklos, in this unflamboyant life of Conrad Black (who owns the Telegraph, the Spectator, the Jerusalem Post, and some 500 other newspapers worldwide) inclines to the former view. He is thorough, respectful and only slightly sycophantic. He buys heavily into the myth of Black as a man of destiny - a latterday Citizen Kane. He does not deny that his subject's wheeler-dealer style has left him open to criticism - as when, for instance, he sold pounds 12.5 million of Telegraph shares immediately before cutting the price of the paper, a move which shattered the value of the shares. But he seems to assume, like Black, that criticism just goes with the territory - there will be always be moaning minnies.

Biographies of serial killers always start with a few childhood scenes showing the subject secretly killing the family cat or drowning the canary - classic psychological profiling. Business biographies prefer to linger on their subject's early obsessions with military heroes. By the age of 17, Black had a large library of warlike books, and could recite fleet tonnages and armaments at will (''his favourite book,'' Siklos reports breathlessly, as if he can sense the tremor of fate, ''was Napoleon and his Marshals").

Certainly, Black approached some of the companies he acquired with what 17th-century historians would call a ''swathe of destruction'' policy. When Conrad and his brother took over the Canadian grocer Dominion Stores in 1978, it had 25,000 employees and 370 shops. By 1984 there were just 40 stores left. One newspaper awarded Black ''self-inflicted corporate enema of the year'' award.

Similarly, when Black took over the Telegraph in 1985, he inherited an annual loss of pounds 16.7 million, and set about - in his own fetching phrase - ''drowning the kittens''. The paper he bought had 3,900 employees; six years later there were only 1000. But the Telegraph turned a pounds 29 million profit in 1988 and pounds 41.5 million in 1989. The pounds 67 million investment was entirely recouped in five years. It was, he said later, with typical Black humour, "not the sort of deal you get two of in a lifetime.''

Siklos does succeed in capturing Black's attractive side - his lordly and impatient wit. Shortly after his marriage to Barbara Amiel, he conceded that she had upgraded his dress sense and talked him out of his fondness for Romanian suits. ''She admires all fugitives from communism,'' he said, ''but does not consider Romanian tailoring to be the best that's available.'' When they were doing up their glitzy Hampstead mansion, he did away with a kitsch ''environmental chamber'' which could blow hot or cold winds in your face. ''It's not my style,'' he said, '' to sit there trying to simulate a South Sea island.''

Black has a good line in good lines, though Siklos does not remark on the slightly bullying snap behind many of them. Black is one of those men who prides himself on his forthrightness. ''I've never minded a good verbal punch-up.'' What this seems to mean, in practice, is that Black enjoys being rude about others - he has an endearing habit of writing sharp letters to his own papers - while reserving the right to sue those who are rude about him. Even Siklos is forced to refer to the ''libel chill'' around Black. ''It's a profit centre for me,'' chuckles the magnate. Oddly, Black did not sue the magazines who referred to him as Canada's most eligible bachelor in 1978, even though at the time he had a wife and child.

Obviously, the book lacks an ending - the story is not over yet. Siklos takes his leave with a classic watch-this-space gasp: ''The goal,'' he writes, ''is invincibility, it not immortality.'' It is hard to believe anyone could seriously save this idiotic line until last. Perhaps he thought it was a sly dig - that hint of hubris. If so, it's a fair point. Black ends up sounding like a Charles Kane wannabe, whose snappy airs feel brittle despite his great wealth and power. He acts and talks like the biggest beast in the jungle, but there's a big cool cat out there called Rupert Murdoch, whose sheer size makes Black look like an imposter.

Besides, for British readers the whole book is in a sense beside the point, since it has no interest in a huge, if parochial, question. How come two brassy and brilliant high-achievers from Australia and Canada have fought a long, fierce and seemingly personal dual for supremacy with Britain's newspapers? Last year's price-cutting war - a game of chicken for tycoons - cost the Telegraph alone pounds 25 million in lost revenues in 1994, and the fallout from the feud has tightened belts, nerves, and arteries in all other newspapers (especially this one). Is this a happy story about a great guy? It might be fun to watch cocks fighting, but not when it's our house they're smashing to bits in the process, not when it's our kittens they're drowning.