Press: The lady vanishes: how Barbara Amiel signed off

How do you fire the wife of the boss? Sholto Byrnes on the exit of Lady Black from 'The Daily Telegraph'
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The Independent Online

When Martin Newland arrived as the new editor of The Daily Telegraph last October, he could hardly have expected that within seven months he would be sacking Barbara Amiel - a star columnist who also happens to be married to the proprietor who had given Newland his job.

When Martin Newland arrived as the new editor of The Daily Telegraph last October, he could hardly have expected that within seven months he would be sacking Barbara Amiel - a star columnist who also happens to be married to the proprietor who had given Newland his job.

Last week Amiel was named in a $1.25bn lawsuit alongside her husband, Conrad Black, and three former executives of Hollinger, the company through which Black used to control the Telegraph group. Once that happened, Newland had no alternative. He phoned Amiel and informed her that her weekly column was "suspended" until the legal action was resolved.

For some at the paper it was high time. Their view was that Amiel's continued presence on the comment pages while a steady drip of news revealed the Blacks' heroic extravagances - subsidised by Hollinger - was "an embarrassment".

The fact that the latest suit claims that Amiel charged to Hollinger a tip to the doorman at the Bergdorf Goodman store in New York, and that on top of her pay as a columnist and director the company paid her $1,141,558 in salary and bonuses between 1999 and 2003 (for which, according to the suit, there was "no legitimate basis"), merely rubbed salt into the wounds of employees already indignant about pay freezes and under-investment in the highly profitable Telegraph titles.

Others concede that she may have written a little too often about Israel, a particular hobby horse of hers, but defend her column as being "an event", a glamorous and metropolitan contrast to some of the drier regulars.

Slightly surprisingly, it was around the time Conrad Black's business empire began to unravel that Amiel's once fortnightly column started to appear weekly. "She needed the money," jokes one Telegraph staffer. Another says that Newland was "indebted" to the Blacks.

"It was difficult," says the insider. "If we dropped her it would seem as though we'd only ever had her because she was Conrad's wife, whereas our defence had always been that she was a good writer who'd been a columnist on other papers before.

"Having her in every week underlined that defence. But keeping her while Conrad was facing disgrace was pretty strange too."

In the meantime, Amiel continued to file. "Her copy tended to arrive in the early hours of the morning," says one Telegraph editor. "It was always too long for the space. Oddly it seemed to get longer and longer over time." Whereas other contributors' work would be cut to fit, hers was considered untouchable; neighbouring parts of the op-ed page, such as the cartoon, would be shrunk to make way for her hallowed words.

The occasional telephone call to correct or query was made with great trepidation by her handlers at the paper. "She would say that she expected to be treated just like any other contributor, but you knew that if you did you'd hear about it sharpish."

Personal contact with Amiel was rare, and when Telegraph staff met her it only confirmed her special status. One who visited the Blacks' London residence describes it as being "a very nice house, but rather like a five-star hotel - all the carpets were too new and there were butlers appearing from service doors all over the place".

Although she has now been relieved of her platform as a columnist, those who know Amiel expect her to cope with this latest blow. "She's been gung-ho about everything that's happened so far," says one. "Outwardly, she is very confident." That confidence is certainly being put to the test.

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