Bill Hagerty on the press

He may have been a villain, but I can't gloat over Conrad's fall
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When used to describe media magnates who end up in the soup, the word "loveable" - as in "loveable rogue" - can be a considerable exaggeration. Yet, no matter how much money is siphoned off or how many employees are consigned to the scrapheap, there are those who retain an irrational soft spot for the charismatic swashbucklers of the business.

Here's one such's view of another: "He had a number of unattractive aspects, but he did have an astonishing career and was a memorable figure. Personally, I found him rather entertaining."

That was Conrad Black talking to me in 1998 about Robert Maxwell, who didn't so much end up in the soup as founder in troubled waters. The description could, I think, apply to either man, even if Lord Black, asked if some of his business activities were comparable to those of Maxwell, replied: "That's defamatory!"

Last night's perceptive BBC4 show Storyville: The Last Press Baron, showed that although Conrad may have been facing a $1.2bn (£670m) lawsuit as a result of financial irregularities at Hollinger, of which he was chairman, he has not lost the ability to charm. Even the tenacious programme maker Debbie Melnyk could not disguise a growing fondness for the man she was pursuing.

Tracing his spectacular career from when, as an eight-year-old, he invested his savings in General Motors, Melnyk found plenty of critics who wouldn't give Black the time of day, let alone the benefit of the doubt. "I don't believe a word that comes out of Lord Black's mouth," said Herbert Denton, the man who uncovered the $224m Hollinger hole that the chairman and his close associates dug over a period of eight years.

There was understandable bitterness from former employees, such as those at an early acquisition, the Dominion supermarket chain in Canada, where Black found a legal loophole that enabled him to sack hundreds without paying proper severance pay and "rewrote" the rules governing the pension fund without anybody noticing. He then "reclaimed" $62m from it. Why alarm bells didn't ring when, years later, he arrived at the Telegraph group is another story.

But, for every disgruntled shareholder or financial analyst saying that Black's name was mud, and discounting fat-cat sympathisers such as Donald Trump, there was someone with a sneaking admiration for the man with a mountainous ego and barrels of chutzpah.

That wily old bird Peregrine Worsthorne told how, as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, he was summoned to Black's Toronto estate soon after the Canadian had pulled off a stupendous coup by gaining control of the group at a bargain price. Trudging through the snow, Worsthorne found every gate locked. He clambered over a fence to reach the house. Black opened the door himself, recalled Worsthorne, and said: "Excuse me a minute, I'm just delivering my new baby." Worsthorne observed: "It was rather endearing - I'd never thought of a newspaper proprietor in the role of midwife."

More revelatory, perhaps, was the tale of another Storyville contributor. Black remarked at a signing of his book on FD Roosevelt that his subject may have been a devious man, but he was a great leader. Some great leaders are devious, he continued, without the slightest irony; Cardinal Richelieu was a churchman and he didn't always tell the truth.

Conrad, discussing the cost of a newspaper price war, once quoted to me one of Roosevelt's successors as President, Dwight D Eisenhower: "The cost of victory may be high, but the price of defeat is everything." That's why I won't gloat over Conrad.

The heavy cost of short cuts

In the interests of further cost cutting Trinity Mirror is apparently considering a seven-day editorial operation for the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror. Nothing new there. But the history of expectations that a hybrid staff can produce two papers whose characters and raisons d'être are totally different is as bleak as an elephants' graveyard.

Robert Maxwell once asked me to produce a detailed plan for amalgamating Daily and Sunday Mirrors that were much stronger then than they are today. I did so, but warned him of the probable downside: union discontent, the dissipation of loyalty among journalists, the reduction in quality. Maxwell filed away my report and it wasn't mentioned to me again.

In 1996, when Lord Hollick controlled the Express Group, he asked me to meet with Stephen Grabiner, his executive director. Grabiner did not enthuse over a 7-day operation, either. Less than three months later he introduced such a scheme. It didn't last.

Richard Desmond, who has spread staff across his four national titles thinly isn't daunted. He's doubtless making lots more money, but the quality and overall circulation performances are not those to send anyone's pulses racing at Trinity Mirror, other than those of the shareholders.

Not that falling standards and slipping sales will deter managements transfixed by the bottom line from seeking more savings. How long before some editorial department is shipped to Calcutta?