Bill Hagerty on the press

He may have been a villain, but I can't gloat over Conrad's fall

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?

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing