Media: The Commoner's revenge

The tangled story behind Conrad Black's failure to secure a peerage features the nastiest newspaper war seen in North America for decades, and a prime minister who comes out in a rash at the mere mention of his name. By David Usborne
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The Independent Online
What happened to the peerage that was to be Conrad Black's? If all had gone as it was meant to, the owner of The Daily Telegraph would have assumed the title of His Lordship by now in the tradition of other Canadian-born press barons before him, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson of Fleet. But when the latest honours emanated from Buckingham Palace on 19 June, the name Black was unexpectedly missing.

The answers are to be found not in London but in Canada. It is a tangled story that features the nastiest newspaper war seen in North America in decades - one being fought partly by old hands from Britain - and a famously tetchy Canadian Prime Minister who will come out in a rash at the mere mention of Conrad Black.

This is a war that was engaged in Canada last October. It was then that Mr Black - who has now caustically taken to calling himself "the Great Commoner" - launched a new Canadian newspaper, The National Post. He meant it as a direct challenge to The Globe and Mail, which hitherto had held a monopoly as the country's only national title for no fewer than 155 years. In little more than 155 days, this handsome daily has acquired a circulation only slightly inferior to The Globe's.

It has also earned a reputation for conservative opinions (in the mould of The Telegraph), aggressive political reporting and an avowed distaste for said Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and sustained examination of questionable financial dealings on the part of his government. And that, many surmise, is where Black came unstuck. Chretien, whose Liberal government is in its second term, stands accused of personally blocking Black's title out of political spite.

That his path to the House of Lords had suddenly been impeded only became clear to Mr Black, who resides mostly in London, on 17 June. Proposed for the new honours list by William Hague, he had already been contemplating what title he would adopt. (He had been thinking of Lord Havenwold, after the name of his Toronto estate.) But on that day, he received a phone call from Tony Blair informing him that there was a problem, thrown up by the Canadian government. Beside himself, Black subsequently telephoned Chretien. He demanded that the problem, whatever it was, be resolved in 48 hours.

It was not resolved, nor is it clear that it can be. Thus, Mr Black may never get to wear his ermine.

The official explanation for this mess rests with an 80-year-old proclamation of the Canadian parliament, known as the Nickles Resolution. This advised that Ottawa should forbid any Canadian citizen from taking an honour from a foreign government - ie the imperialist powers in London - if said honour conferred any precedent or privilege. The granting of a seat in the House of Lords surely does that.

But Black has reason to be peeved. According to him, at least, he received advice from someone high up in Ottawa early in June that the peerage could be his if he availed himself of dual British-Canadian nationality. This he duly did. (Beaverbrook, formerly Max Aitken, acquired his peerage in 1917, before the passing of the Nickles Resolution in 1919. Roy Thomson, whose son, Kenneth, owns The Globe and Mail, renounced his Canadian citizenship to receive his title, Lord Thomson of Fleet, in 1963). Black was aided in getting his dual passport so quickly by both Blair and by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

That Chretien - who allegedly was unaware of these machinations until the last minute - then jammed the works with Nickles has aroused a tide of disdain in Canada, mostly in the commentary columns of newspapers, including those not owned by Black. "There are many people, especially within the newspaper industry, who are delighted someone is finally taking some air out of Black's inflated ego," conceded Helen Connell, editor of the London Free Press in Ontario. "But this is a joke that's gone on so long now that it's making Canadians look silly and insecure."

The Toronto Star, itself threatened by Black's National Post, asked: "What is it about this country, other than our perpetual feelings of inferiority and mean-spiritedness, that makes us sneer at and begrudge the recognition achieved by Canadians abroad?" You might wonder if Black is now regretting his new baby, The Post. (Black did not respond to a request for an interview here.) On the super-sleek news floor of the paper's Toronto headquarters, editor-in-chief Ken Whyte says at that no stage was he pressured by Black to censor the reporting about the Chretien government.

"I was really devastated to hear that we had got in the way of his honour," he went on. "But at the same time I am grateful to him for letting us go about our business. I can't imagine that many other newspaper owners would have stood aside when their reporters were writing something that was going to have such personal consequences."

The Post, meanwhile, has cost Black a lot more than just his seat in the Lords. Shareholders in Hollinger Inc, his holding company, must surely be wondering at the C$17.5m that The Post lost in its first quarter - much more than the C$10m that Black had forecast. Industry observers in Toronto estimate that The Post's first year might drain as much as C$100m from Hollinger's coffers - money thus depriving the group's other titles, including The Daily Telegraph. And while the paper claims a circulation across Canada of 278,000 Monday to Friday (332,000 on Saturdays), it is attracting scant advertising. The Globe, too, has been forced to revamp itself.

For that it has turned to British talent in the form of Phillip Crawley. Recently named publisher, Crawley is a former editor-in-chief of the Times supplements in London and of the South China Morning Post. This week, he will appoint a deputy editor, also expected to be a London recruit, though not the Mail's Richard Addis nor Sunday Business's Jeff Randall, despite rumour to the contrary.

"London's is the most competitive newspaper market in the world. When you are looking for people with the qualities you need, you are more likely to find them in London," he explained.

The Post, too, has about 10 British journalists on its floor, most notably Martin Newland, its deputy news editor, until recently home editor at The Daily Telegraph. Whyte, however, plays down the importance of British blood.

"The Globe seems to be counting on solving its problems by hiring Brits. But if Crawley's so good, he should have cleared up those problems by now," he remarked tartly.

Ultimately, it is the outcome of the war between The Post and The Globe that will matter the most to Black. In the meantime, however, Chretien has promised to study whether or not his newly acquired dual citizenship means the title of His Lordship can one day be his. That will happen when the Canadian parliament debates amendments to its citizenship laws in Ottawa, set for this autumn. Until then, however, and perhaps for much longer, Conrad will have to be satisfied with "the Great Commoner".