As the tycoon said to the bishop...

Why has Conrad Black just called a cleric a 'twerp'? And what's it got to do with journalists going on strike?

These days, Conrad Black, the newspaper magnate, can't seem to stay out of the news himself - at least not in his native Canada. If he is not suing the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, for personally preventing Britain from giving him a peerage, than he is hurling insults at esteemed leaders of the Catholic clergy.

The squabble with the church, or more accurately with a single bishop in the western city of Calgary, has been especially hard to ignore. With 57 per cent of Canada's titles in his control - that's 61 daily newspapers - Black can afford to speak his mind. But when he picked on Bishop Frederick Henry in a comment piece he wrote last month in his own Calgary Herald, he abandoned all self-restraint.

In just a few column-inches, well beneath the fold, Black likened the bishop to a "useful idiot" and then, for good measure, told the people of the city something else. "If your jumped-up twerp of a bishop thinks I am not a very good Catholic," he expostulated, "I think he's a prime candidate for an exorcism."

Behind this unhappy exchange is a five-month-old strike at the Calgary Herald. The Herald is owned by Southam News, which, in turn, is held by Hollinger International, where Black is chairman and chief executive. Bishop Henry's mistake was to suggest in an article of his own printed in the Toronto-based Catholic Register, that the Herald's management - and Black - had been unfair to the strikers.

In his admonishments, the bishop dared also to imply that Black, 55, who adopted the Roman Catholic faith 14 years ago, was somehow violating its doctrine of charity and compassion. "There seems to be more than a few gaps in Black's understanding of Christian social teaching which has been a staunch defender of the right to unionise and the need for strong unionism in our society," he wrote.

That, apparently, did it for Black. "Bishop Henry is shirking his fundamental duty to avoid ex-cathedra moral statements on important matters in his see until he has informed himself fairly about them," Black retorted in his own column. "In the Leninist terminology which would be familiar to the strike leaders, he has made himself a perfect "useful idiot" to them." The atmosphere in Calgary was hardly improved when the National Post, Canada's new coast-to-coast paper that was launched by Black 18 months ago, printed another piece by one of western Canada's best known conservative voices, Ted Byfield. Byfield mocked the bishop as "Red Freddy" and went on to lament that, "the West seems fated to have at least one pinko bishop".

It was not long before all the church leaders in Calgary, Alberta's largest city and a boomtown for the oil and gas industry, released an angry joint statement. "We condemn the defamatory and libellous statements calling Bishop Fred Henry a "jumped-up twerp", an "idiot"', and a "pinko commie", it read. "These statements are so outrageous and so unchristian as to merit no further comment."

Black, who, through Hollinger, has a worldwide stable of papers that includes The Daily Telegraph in Britain and The Jerusalem Post, seems hurt by the notion that he makes unnecessary trouble for himself at home. "I am not a compulsively controversial figure in Canada," he said by telephone from Italy. "And I am not, as far as I am aware, someone whose conduct creates seething."

But some degree of controversy has dogged Black in Canada ever since the launch of the National Post, conceived as a conservative alternative to The Globe and Mail, which had been the monopoly national title. Today, Black claims to sell 300,000 copies of The Post every day even though its losses to date have far exceed projections.

Then came the day last June when Mr Chretien intervened to have Black removed from the Queen's birthday honours list. He was to have been given a life peerage. In asking London to alter the list to remove Black, who now has dual citizenship, Mr Chretien cited a 1919 parliamentary resolution forbidding Canadian citizens to accept titles from abroad.

Black responded by accusing Mr Chretien of using the peerage matter to punish the National Post for some unflattering pieces it had run. He went on to sue the Prime Minister. In March of this year, an Ontario judge dismissed the suit. Black, however, is appealing.

Attention is now on the Calgary Herald and the strike, which began last November. They cited a raft of grievances, including demands for the inclusion in their contracts of seniority clauses. While the Herald is still being published daily, the strike has cast Black as an enemy of the unions and the working man.

Black did little to repair his image when, a few weeks ago, he encountered one of the strike's leaders, Andrew Marshall, in the lobby of a Calgary hotel, where he had been attending an unrelated business meeting. Asked by Marshall why he continued to "insult your once-valued employees," Black was harsh in his response. "We're not," he said. "We're amputating gangrenous limbs." Today, Marshall, still seething, accuses Black of wanting to wait the strike out for two years, after which time, under Alberta law, he will be free to hold a vote on deunionising the paper.

On its web page, Marshall's union has posted a letter of support from Britain's National Union of Journalists. It implies that the grievances of the Calgary strikers are shared by staff at The Telegraph. "At Hollinger's Daily Telegraph, our members have worked for many years under worsening conditions with the working week increased and terms and conditions worsened for the vast majority as a result of the introduction of personal contracts - contracts which are divisive and extremely bad for morale."

Black remains unrepentant about the strike, noting that about 40 per cent of those who walked out last November are now back on the job at The Herald. The others he does not miss. "We are producing a better paper without them and the strike is no impediment to us carrying on," he said on the telephone. As for the business with the Bishop, it was, Black insists, "just a sideshow".

Prospects for a settlement at the Herald must be slim, therefore. "The strike," Black suggested, "is progressing perfectly." But peace did break out just in time for Easter - between proprietor and bishop. "I have had a most pleasant exchange of correspondence with the bishop in question," Black explained with apparent satisfaction. "He wrote me a letter apologising for his reflections that, in effect, maligned my religious sincerity, an allegation that he withdrew. I wrote him a letter back and accepted his clarification and withdrew the reflections made by me about him that he considered objectionable."

Even at this time of year, Mr Black's journalists in Calgary and at The Daily Telegraph may feel less charitable and forgiving.

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