Last Monday saw an amusing party at the English Speaking Union in London to mark the publication of Tom Bower's devastating biography of Conrad Black and his wife Barbara. It is a forensic book which has already drawn forth a tumultuous (and to my mind largely unpersuasive) riposte from the Telegraph's former proprietor in The Sunday Telegraph, now owned by his successors, the Barclays.
Tom Bower has a good claim to being Britain's leading investigative journalist. His case, not to put too fine a point on it, is that Lord Black is a crook, and was always so inclined. He reminds us of some of Lord Black's dodgy dealings in Canada, before, still very much a minor tycoon, he picked up the Telegraph titles for a song in 1985. The book ends with an account of Lord Black's more recent alleged "corporate kleptocracy", which will be the subject of a trial in Chicago next spring.
Time will tell whether Conrad (as many half affectionately call him) is guilty as charged. Whatever happens, it seems to me that Mr Bower's highly readable book, in its pitiless evisceration of its subject, misses one crucial, and huge, point. Conrad was really quite a good proprietor. Or at least he was not at all a bad one. He was obviously not a newspaperman of the brilliance of Northcliffe, and when he came to launch a title, the National Post in Canada, he made a rather expensive botch of it. Yet he was many ways a faithful steward of the Telegraph papers, and of The Spectator magazine, which he acquired in 1988.
Good proprietors choose the right editors, and interfere very little. On the whole, Conrad can be judged a success on both counts. His first Daily Telegraph editor, Max Hastings, was a "wet" Tory who presided over a paper much to the left of Conrad, yet for the most part the proprietor did not meddle, though there were some differences. The next editor, Charles Moore, was ideologically more in tune with Conrad, and there was less friction. The proprietor was still capable of issuing instructions. Once, in the mid-1990s, he instructed the leader writers via Mr Moore's secretary during his absence to be nicer to Bill Clinton.
The main thorn in Lord Black's side was Rupert Murdoch, who cut the cover price of The Times in September 1993, eventually forcing The Daily Telegraph to follow suit. The Telegraph's profits, which had been spectacular, declined quite sharply. Even so, the group, for which Conrad had paid only tens of millions in 1985, was sold to the Barclays for £660m in 2004. That does not seem to me a bad performance. Most people would probably also agree that both Telegraph titles and The Spectator have weakened since Conrad was forced to sell them.
In his autobiography published in 2002, Max Hastings was quite kind about Conrad, though clearly he had sometimes been exasperated by him. The same Max Hastings was less generous to his old boss when he made a speech at Mr Bower's launch party. Conrad may, or may not, be guilty of larceny on a grand scale, but if he was once a pretty good proprietor in Sir Max's view, surely he remains so.
Some people stayed away from the party, and in some ways I wished I had done. Many of us had broken bread at Conrad's table, and accepted his hospitality. Now we were quaffing champagne in celebration of a book which makes him out as a criminal with few, if any, redeeming features. Even if his trial next year establishes his guilt, I shall continue to say the following things. He was not a bad proprietor. And he looked after the Telegraph titles pretty well.
The 'LA Times' it is a-changin'
Last week I mentioned the Los Angeles Times, America's fourth highest selling newspaper, which is up for sale. Since then its editor, Dean Baquet, has either jumped or been pushed because he was unwilling to eliminate more than 50 editorial jobs.
Mr Baquet, in common with many senior journalists on the newspaper, believes that this was a cut too far, and that the Los Angeles Times is in danger of becoming a mere shadow of its former self. Perhaps they are right. Yet even now, after several previous rounds of reductions, the newspaper employs some 940 journalists, which is more than twice the number of the best staffed British newspaper. Is the Los Angeles Times more than twice as good as The Times or The Daily Telegraph? I very much doubt it. Surely there is still some fat on the newspaper. With declining revenues, editors have to think of how to make better use of the resources that are available to them.
Have we forgotten white victims of racism?
Many people will remember the appalling racist murder of Anthony Walker in Liverpool last year. Anthony, a gentle and talented black boy of 18, died in an act of what the judge called "poisonous, racist thuggery" when two white men hunted him down and embedded an ice-axe in his skull.
Fewer people will probably be aware of the racist murder of Kriss Donald, a 15-year-old white boy, in Glasgow in 2004. Kriss was abducted in daylight before being tortured, stabbed 13 times and set on fire by three Asian men who had singled him out simply because he was white.
Last week, on BBC2's Newsnight, Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun and now a columnist on the paper, maintained that the media had virtually ignored the racist murder of Kriss Donald, whose killers were convicted last week, because he was white.
A quick perusal of the database suggests he is wrong about the tabloids. They seem to have given about as much coverage to Kriss Donald's murder as they did to Anthony Walker's. But the posher papers, with the exception of The Times, gave relatively little space to Kriss's murder and much more to Anthony's.
Oddly, the discrepancy is particularly marked in the case of The Daily Telegraph, which virtually ignored Kriss, while publishing many stories about Anthony, some of them very moving. My impression is that the BBC also gave the racist murder of Kriss comparatively little airtime.
Mr MacKenzie is at least half right. Parts of the media have not fully grasped that whites can also be victims of racist murders. There may be a further explanation for the under-reporting in some quarters of Kriss Donald's murder - namely that it happened in Scotland which, post-devolution, is slipping off the radar of some London papers.Reuse content