Praying for survival

As Conrad Black fights financial crisis, one quiet corner of his empire has been overlooked. What is the future for The Catholic Herald?
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The Independent Online

One thing is for sure: Conrad Black needs to dig deep. The beleaguered newspaper baron knows that whatever the outcome of his difficulties, he faces a vast bill. The number-crunchers who enjoy calculating such things estimate that when all the fuss over "unauthorised" payments is over, Lord Black will have paid out about $100m from his increasingly vulnerable personal fortune.

So far, all attention has focused on the future of his biggest asset: The Daily Telegraph. But one corner of his empire has been virtually forgotten in the furore. Black privately owns a 45 per cent stake in The Catholic Herald, a paper that has clout far beyond its sales figure.

Though Black feels a great affinity for the paper - he bought his first shareholding in 1991, shortly after he converted to Catholicism - and relishes the influence it exerts on his co-religionists, it is possible that he will be forced to divest himself of it, despite the relatively small value of his investment.

One observer with a ringside seat at events reports that staff at the Herald are "very, very nervous".

The Catholic journalistic community is incestuous and close-knit. Its members care deeply about the future of the title - and not only because any new major shareholder at the Herald is likely to mean a new editor and thus a possible new job for someone. Alternatively, if Black pulls out and no one replaces him, the paper's survival will be thrown into doubt.

The source continues: "Should Black's stake be sold, the real fear is that the church would then get its little mitts on the Herald by buying it and installing a new, sympathetic editor. And therein lies the tragedy of all the church press. The moment the Herald becomes the organ for the Bishop or the Archbishop, bang goes journalistic objectivity." Members of the Herald's staff are already said to have approached at least one prospective lay Catholic buyer, who is said to work in the communications field.

Black became involved with the Herald more than a decade ago, at the invitation of its editor at the time, Cristina Odone. "In my opinion, the newspaper was struggling, as it had been starved of money for far too long," she recalls. "Conrad Black had recently converted to Catholicism and he was dying to do a good deed for this new church of his. At first, he bought a 20 per cent share, and subsequently that share grew. In 1991, he seemed like the perfect investor, but now... Let's just say the Herald trembles again."

William Oddie, the Herald's editor, withdraws himself from this aspect of the debate. Recent ill health has meant he has been absent from work. "I am out of touch with office gossip," he says. But he adds bullishly: "Conrad Black's shareholding is a personal one; we have no connection with Hollinger. He owns 45 per cent, as does Rocco Forte. Of course we've mentioned Black's situation, but I think it will make no difference at all to us." So, are there, in fact, any buyers waiting in the wings, should Black choose to sell? "Not as far as I know," Oddie replies, guardedly.

Oddie says that having a press baron as a major shareholder has had its advantages. "If we wanted a photograph, we've always been able to phone the Telegraph picture desk and see what they've got. When we've had problems with our computers on press day, then one of their men will come over and help. The Telegraph resources have been useful to us."

He adds that Black "has taken a personal interest, too". Alongside the now-famous bust of Cardinal Newman on Black's desk is a big pile of Heralds. And, as with his bigger publications such as The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, Black is not averse to airing his views in the paper.

"If he doesn't like an article he'll write a stiff letter, and I'll publish it," says Oddie. "But he's perfectly friendly about it. He has never interfered with editorial control of the thing. There is no question of a heavy hand."

The Herald's (un-audited) circulation is thought to be just below 20,000, and it brings in a profit, albeit a small one.

The Catholic press is a crowded niche, although circulations are surprisingly low given that the total UK Catholic population is 4.1 million, of whom one million claim to be regular church-goers.

The rival Catholic Times sells just fewer than 16,000; The Tablet sells 23,000; sales at The Universe are 47,000 (of which 10,000 are "bulk" sales). About one in 40 Catholics buys a Catholic newspaper. By contrast, one in seven British Jews takes The Jewish Chronicle.

The Catholic Herald is an idiosyncratic operation. It is edited from a former convent school above a church; the aroma of incense can still be detected there. The paper is run on a shoestring. Freelance payment rates, for example, are about £60 per 1,000 words. Arm-twisting and robust persuasion are thus a key part of the commissioning process.

Odone, now deputy editor of the New Statesman, recalls that the staff in her day consisted of "a consecrated virgin, a former Irish priest and would-be monks. It was wonderful - the kind of thing G K Chesterton couldn't have invented." Yet a Herald pedigree can work wonders: Roger Alton, now editor of The Observer, and Martin Newland, the man at the helm of The Daily Telegraph, are both alumni of the paper, as is Mel Giedroyc, one half of the chirpy comedy duo Mel and Sue. Of the current contributors, perhaps the most intriguing is the paper's theatre critic, the Danish-born aristocrat Claus von Bulow, who was famously convicted, and then cleared on appeal, of the attempted murder of his wife - and was portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the film Reversal of Fortune.

One former Herald editor, Terence Sheehy, used to show off his ghastly collection of kitsch fake wax relics - including a saint's toenail and another saint's hand.

Whether Black sells his stake or not, Oddie has his fierce critics, many of whom accuse him of taking the Herald to the "fundamentalist right". One says: "The Herald used to be a very left-leaning liberal paper. William Oddie, like all converts, became a fundamentalist, and he has grown progressively right-wing to the extent that many in the church hierarchy are uncomfortable with this kind of dead hand of orthodoxy all over the newspaper."

Another criticism voiced by sources sympathetic to the Herald is that the newspaper has become "completely obsessed with sex, abortion, birth-control and embryo research, delivering an endless ear-bashing on those issues".

But an influential insider at the Herald defends Oddie. "Many previous editors were lamentable. William has enormously improved the technical quality of the paper and stabilised the circulation. The leaders are superb - often better in my view than Fleet Street. It is a far more professional publication now, it's not losing money any more and he deserves credit for that."

None the less, with Oddie approaching retirement, speculation about his successor has already begun in earnest. It is understood that the writer Mary Kenny has recently been informally sounded out for the post. Kenny is unavailable for comment, but a source familiar with the situation confirms: "Although she hasn't been [formally] approached, her name has been floated. That's undoubtedly true."