Conrad Black: one of the true greats

Don't knock Conrad Black, says the one-time 'Telegraph' editor Martin Newland. His papers' journalists didn't know how lucky they were

Light years ago I left The Daily Telegraph to help launch a new national newspaper in Canada for Hollinger under Conrad Black. It was a bold project, given the vastness of the country and the overcrowded nature of the market. And it was to set off what was universally recognised as the most vicious newspaper war in North America.

Clever arguments were made at the time for the economic case for launching the National Post, but I am certain Conrad's main motive was to "change the national conversation", as he once put it, in a country he believed was mired in a soft left-liberal political consensus.

Within months, the Post was within an ace of matching the circulation of its national competitor, The Globe and Mail. In scope and audacity the project was typical of Conrad's style as a newspaperman.

I first met Conrad a few months after my arrival in Toronto at a dinner at his home for potential advertisers in the soon-to-be-launched newspaper. He drew me aside and asked me what I thought of Canada. I told him I found the standard of living agreeable and remarked that I particularly liked the gadgets you have in your car that automatically open your garage door in winter so that you can drive inside without getting cold.

Conrad indicated a bank of about five garage doors arrayed beside his impressive Bridle Path mansion. "Here, Martin, you and I could enjoy a veritable symphony of garage door opening," he remarked.

That was in 1998. Since then I have worked at a senior level under four proprietors, as deputy editor of the National Post under Conrad, as the same under the Asper family to whom Conrad sold the Post and other Canadian holdings in 2001, as editor of The Daily Telegraph again under Conrad, then as the same under Gordon Paris, interim administrator of Hollinger International, and finally under Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay after Conrad was divested of control of his company and the Telegraph sold.

Those years were for me the professional equivalent of the last gallon or two of bath water that disappears down the drain hole, circling faster and faster before the final plunge. They began as the most professionally rewarding years of my life, but ended in November last year with my resignation as editor of the Telegraph.

I was one of the last of the Hollinger "big beasts" to go, preceded by Dominic Lawson at the Sunday Telegraph, and followed by Boris Johnson of The Spectator. Sarah Sands, Dominic's replacement at the Sunday, left a few weeks ago.

Thus the surviving remnants of the Black-led Hollinger team have departed the company's old UK stamping ground. In Canada, where once Hollinger accounted for about 50 per cent of newspaper circulation, the company's editorial operations have been rolled up. In America, only the Chicago Sun-Times remains as a Hollinger holding of any significance. The king is dead (or at least down), the empire dismantled, and the lawyers rich.

I am writing this because I think it would be wrong to let a remarkable history of newspaper acquisitions, investment and transformation on three continents over many decades be reduced to nothing more than shallow guffaws about Conrad's wife's spending habits or the refurbishment of the company jet.

Having worked for Lord Black on two continents on two of his most adored national newspapers, I have to say that I found him to be well mannered, sympathetic, mischievous, and most definitely on my side. He gleefully joined us in the game of setting our editorial agendas and, in general, stood by us through the ensuing maelstrom. One knew where one stood with Conrad because his publications were locked in an ideological unity of purpose. He simply could not tolerate the notion of a newspaper that sits around reflecting on events. He expected his publications to change things - not by confirming prejudices, but by winning people to a fresh viewpoint.

The National Post launched with a pro-America, pro-tax cut agenda. It championed the "unite-the-right" movement, (aimed at preventing votes from being split between Canada's two right-wing parties), which recently brought about the defeat of a discredited, corrupt and tired federal Liberal government. It started investigations into the corrupt misuse of taxpayers' money and, most significantly, into the business conduct of the then Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien. This latter line of inquiry, handled by me personally at news desk level, was to have significant repercussions for Conrad. One night, the Prime Minister finally blew, and telephoned Conrad in Europe, reaching him, I am told, in the early hours. Lord Black telephoned my editor, Ken Whyte, soon afterwards to tell him that Chrétien would be writing a long letter to the paper.

The story about Chrétien itself was complicated and, I suspect, held little interest for the proprietor, but he had been left in no doubt how strongly the Prime Minister felt about it. Our instructions from Lord Black were simple: "Carry on, but make sure you get it right."

So we did, and Chrétien torpedoed Conrad's peerage by raising an objection, under an obscure parliamentary resolution with no statutory power, requesting that Canadian citizens refrain from accepting foreign honours. The Queen could not be put in a position where she was receiving conflicting advice from two Commonwealth heads of state and so Conrad was left high and dry.

He renounced his Canadian citizenship, sold his Canadian newspaper holdings, including the Post, and walked away from a country whose media and political landscape he had transformed for the better. Not just through the Post, which had raised journalists' salaries and profiles throughout the land, but through his stewardship of the Southam chain of newspapers, which he also owned, and whose resources made the Post possible.

As my former colleague Mark Steyn has written in the past, newspaper groups taken over by Hollinger, such as Southam, Fairfax in Australia and the Telegraph Group in the UK, improved immeasurably, in terms of editorial quality, intellectual robustness and the bottom line. In Canada Conrad's former possessions, including the Post, are now shadows of their former selves.

I firmly believe it was the Post, or more precisely me and Ken Whyte, that played a major part in bringing about Conrad's departure from Canada. Conrad's response in my case was to put me at the helm of the Telegraph. Talk about standing by your editors.

I have not spoken to Lord Black since he telephoned me a few weeks into my editorship of the Telegraph to say goodbye for the second time in as many years. (The first time had been in 2001 when he left a rallying message on my voicemail after selling the National Post.) I felt ready to do a Thelma and Louise cliff-jump scene with him, but he steadied me graciously, commending the Barclays as "sympathetic" owners, and saying that he needed to concentrate all his powers on fighting accusations of racketeering. He could see then that his control of Hollinger was under threat as shareholder groups and their lawyers closed in, and he was trying to sell the Telegraph before it was taken away from him.

This course of action was to be denied him by judicial proceedings in America and the Telegraph was instead subjected to a horribly debilitating bidding process which, as it turned out, was won by Sir David and Sir Frederick anyway.

When I was, yet again, between proprietors during the bidding process, I marvelled at the depth of hatred for Conrad by my staff. They said that profits from the paper had been "looted", that working conditions had deteriorated. I refrained from reminding them that many of their number would not even be in the building if Conrad had not rescued the newspaper from near-oblivion in the 1980s, invested in it, and under Max Hastings established it through Fleet Street's most cut-throat newspaper war as the undisputed market leader.

Hollinger's UK operations, from the Telegraphs to The Spectator, established and cemented in place a powerful, though well-mannered, right-of-centre consensus in this country and brought forward some of the country's best conservative thinkers - from Charles Moore to Boris Johnson to Matthew d'Ancona. W F Deedes, of course, had always been there.

Fresh off the boat from Canada, I saw the newspaper as one of the most civil, congenial and well-mannered journalistic environments on Fleet Street.

Journalists tended to be paid slightly less than those at The Times on the one hand and the Mail on the other, but they operated in an environment where ad hoc sabbaticals were handed out like sweets, where an unofficial nine-day fortnight still existed in some areas, where new mothers could take an unofficial day off every week and where blind drunk employees returning repeatedly to work after lunch were quietly sent home with a coffee rather than sacked.

Many of the newspaper's excellent team of reporters, specialists and editors remained at the Telegraph because of the pastoral care exercised by senior editorial officials and through management's indulgence.

It was obvious to me that any new owner, whether venture capitalists or outside publishing house, was going to change things. In many areas change was essential to wrench the newspaper into the 21st century. But I simply cannot concede that Hollinger management of the newspaper was anything other than generally benign to the people who worked there. I found the same to be the case in Hollinger newsrooms in Canada as well. One of them, the Calgary Herald, offered good salary levels, a crèche (for God's sake), and even a wonderful view of the Rockies. Staff were well protected by the union.

None of the above I am sure will do much to dissipate the fierce joy that Fleet Street reserves for the downfall of one of its own. But I hope it might prompt some to distinguish between "Conrad the newspaperman" and "Conrad the businessman". I expect that Conrad's ideological leanings render this distinction even harder to make in the minds of many. His business difficulties have offered the left-wing media elites a chance to render preposterous his right-wing principles - free markets, near unrestrained capitalism and a heartfelt belief that America has much, much more to offer the world than white pointy hats, redneck hallelujahs and smart bombs.

There are many people, journalists and former associates of Conrad's on both sides of the Atlantic, who fawned on him at parties, allowed him or his newspaper activities to build their profiles, marketability and bank balances, who now would have us believe that they had him pegged as a "wrong 'un" all along. For myself, I am proud of my association with Hollinger, and I think that those who, throughout the world, hitched a ride on the Hollinger express should be proud as well.

I am aware and deeply concerned about the array of federal charges facing Lord Black in America, but I will wait for the evidence to play out before making a judgement, and even if everything against Conrad is proven, this would do nothing to reduce his standing for me as one of the greatest newspapermen of the past century.

Life & Times

1944 Conrad Moffat Black is born in Montreal, the son of a wealthy brewery executive. He is expelled from school for selling exam papers. Completes masters degree at prestigious McGill University.

1971 Having dabbled in mining and publishing he founds Sterling Newspapers Limited, which will later evolve into the mighty Hollinger empire, which will include 60 per cent of papers in Canada plus hundreds of titles in the United States, Britain, Australia and Israel.

1985 Black is approached by Andrew Knight, then the editor of The Economist, and invited to finance a takeover of the Telegraph Group, over which he will preside for nearly 20 years.

2001 After the Canadian government resists Black's attempts to accept a peerage he renounces his Canadian citizenship to become Baron Black of Crossharbour.

2003 Black has to resign as chief executive of Hollinger after an internal inquiry finds that he has received more than £4m in unauthorized loans, including the lease of a corporate jet at £1.7m a year. Lord Black's wife, the journalist Barbara Amiel was accused of spending £1,400 of company money on handbags and having a birthday party which cost £24,000. The Telegraph Group is sold to Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay in 2004.

2005 Following the filing of civil lawsuits against Black the previous year, the US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announces 11 criminal charges against the former press baron. Last December a further four (relating to racketeering, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and money laundering) are added to the sheet. He is to stand trial in March 2007.

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