The Media Column: Conrad Black was brought down by his biggest rival - Rupert Murdoch

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The final words of George Black, whose son Conrad was to go on to become a peer and a newspaper proprietor, were: "Life is hell, most people are bastards and everything is bullshit."

The old man, who had been left bitter and powerless after suffering what he saw as betrayal at the hands of his business partners, then suffered a seizure and fell through the balustrade of a staircase to his death.

It is a story that Conrad - now Lord Black of Crossharbour - often repeats himself to explain something about what drives him. Those words may be dominating his thoughts today, now that he is likely to become merely the former proprietor of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. Finally, his enemies in the corporate world have caught up with Lord Black, forcing him to relinquish control of the newspapers that mean so much to him.

For weeks he has been dismissing criticisms of his business practice as "a fad". The financial row that has now brought him down was being cooked up by opponents "to embarrass me, and it doesn't embarrass me at all". Just last Friday, he ruled out stepping down, in terms that were entirely unambiguous.

If his recent behaviour has been a display of bravado purely for public consumption, it was convincing. Someone who spent time with him a few days ago tells me he was "incredibly relaxed and totally self-assured. If he was a desperately worried man, he did not look like it."

But that is not to minimise what a personal disaster this is for Conrad Black. To Black, who seized control of the Telegraph papers from the gentlemanly Berry family 18 years ago, yesterday's events were a disaster. Newspaper proprietors know there is generally more money in widget manufacturing than in publishing the daily musings of troublesome journalists. But they also know that owning papers brings them a seat at the political top table that would not be available to richer men who dirty themselves with traditional commerce. Black has been able to forge friendships with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher. Prime ministers and presidents are keen to take his calls. He himself said: "The deferences and preferments that this culture bestows upon the owners of great newspapers are satisfying. I mean, I tend to think that they're slightly exaggerated at times, but as the beneficiary - a beneficiary - of that system, it would certainly be hypocrisy for me to complain about it."

Owning the Telegraph has also enabled him to advance his views - pro-Zionist, anti-European Union, anti-BBC - with an efficacy that is out of the reach of any other type of businessman. As Max Hastings, his editor at The Daily Telegraph for more than a decade, has written, Black is "seldom unconscious of his responsibilities as a member of the rich man's trade union".

As the intricate details of Lord Black's financial transactions - companies within companies, unauthorised payments, conflicts of interest - surface over the next few days, a much simpler tale may end up explaining most things. It may be that Black's downfall was ultimately brought on by Rupert Murdoch's broadsheet price war.

Lord Black admitted a few days ago that his arch rival Murdoch's decision 10 years ago to slash the price of The Times - from 45p to 30p, then to 20p - "was a sideshow for Rupert, but a life-and-death struggle for us". Were it not for Murdoch - and local rows in Australia with another rival, Kerry Packer - he would, he said, have been a truly big player. "If Rupert hadn't laid the price war on us... I think we would have made it. But we didn't."

Murdoch's strategy caused Black to respond in kind: launching a cut-price subscription scheme for readers that gave them cheap papers but grotesquely weakened the income stream of the Telegraph. While this was manageable when advertising was buoyant, Black's papers, like the other British broadsheets, were vulnerable when that source of income was hit too. No wonder the paper put so much effort for so long into keeping its headline circulation figure above the magic million mark.

Yesterday, the worker bees at The Daily Telegraph found themselves in the extraordinary position of having a new editor (Martin Newland has been in the chair for just a month) and probably no proprietor. Newland has only just begun to make changes at the paper, to mould it into the shape required by the man who appointed him - Lord Black.

Now Black himself is no longer the man pulling the strings, and Newland and his staff face the prospect of their paper being sold and refashioned by a new proprietor with his own ideas of what The Daily Telegraph should be. As George Black once said...

v.graff@independent.co.uk

Comments