How media tycoon Conrad Black became the Whinger of Oz

The astonishing outburst of the `Telegraph' boss, whose ambitions turned to dust Down Under
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The Independent Online
Even By the mud-slinging standards of Australian political debate, it was rich stuff. As Australians began their summer holiday season last weekend, they were treated to a tirade against some of their most prominent political and business leaders that has left many of the victims spluttering expletives into their New Year champagne.

Paul Keating, the former prime minister, was described as "a coarse autodidact". Bob Hawke, his predecessor, was accused of running a "kangaroo court". Kerry Packer, the media tycoon and Australia's richest person, was dismissed as "an unapologetic and atavistic philistine". Tony O'Reilly, the Irish businessman, and a major shareholder in the Independent on Sunday, was criticised as someone who had "given new and comical meaning to the concept of the poor loser".

The person making these charges was not an Australian political maverick, or even a visiting expatriate dropping, Germaine Greer-like, a few mischievous grenades. It was Conrad Black, the Canadian proprietor of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. For the past five years, Mr Black's British press company has been the controlling shareholder in John Fairfax Holdings, Australia's oldest, richest and most influential newspaper group. Three weeks ago, fuming and frustrated over the Australian government's refusal to let him lift his holding above 25 per cent, Mr Black sold out to a New Zealand company, Brierley Investments, taking a profit of about pounds 130m. And last weekend, in the Fairfax flagship newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, he told Australians in an excoriating valedictory article precisely what he thought of their country and the "impenetrable insularity" of its political leaders.

"Whatever the failings of Canadian, British and American politicians, they never, in my experience, approach the depths of juvenileness regularly plumbed by Australian politicians of all parties," Mr Black wrote. He had "ardently" sought to "build a permanent relationship" with Australia. "Few people could be more disappointed than we now are that our ardour was substantially unrequited ..."

Even for a country that has produced such media buccaneers as Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, few proprietors have been as controversial in Australia as Conrad Black. To understand the passions surrounding his short, turbulent tenure Down Under, it is necessary to understand the role of Fairfax in Australia's political and media culture. The group's newspapers represent money and power. They are hugely wealthy, through their dominance of classified advertising, and their editorials are taken seriously by politicians in Canberra, the capital.

After 149 years of Fairfax family ownership, a disastrous takeover bid by Warwick Fairfax, a descendant of the founder, sent the world's oldest newspaper dynasty into receivership in 1990. Mr Black emerged the victorious new owner of this coveted prize in late 1991 after a vigorous battle against two rival consortia, one led by Mr O'Reilly.

From the start, Mr Black set about lobbying the Labor governments, led by Mr Hawke and Mr Keating, then the conservative coalition, under John Howard, to allow him more than the 25 per cent limit that both main parties have set on foreign ownership of Australian newspaper groups. Mr Black argued that he needed at least 50 per cent to safeguard his investment against predators such as Mr Packer, who now owns 15 per cent of Fairfax and has declared that he wants to own it all.

"I'm not here to sodomise the franchises," Mr Black said in an early bid to reassure journalists and MPs alike who were nervous about his intentions. But his lofty, highfalutin' manner never went down well in Australia, and, on his brief visits to Canberra, he managed to antagonise politicians on both sides.

Mr Black eventually dug his own grave by boasting in his 1993 autobiography that Mr Keating, then Prime Minister, had privately promised to let him raise his Fairfax stake if the newspapers' political coverage was "balanced". This caused a political fire-storm and led to an inquiry by the Senate, the upper house of the federal parliament. Since then, governments of both persuasions have run scared on the issue of raising limits on foreign ownership of the press.

In his article last week, Mr Black accused Mr Keating of suffering a "merciless attack of amnesia" over his promise: "Even after Packer had become an extreme obstructionist to us and a violent adversary of Keating's, the prime minister huffed and puffed, schemed, revised recent history in his inimitable style, stormed around his office swearing vengeance on his enemies, especially Packer, but on his promises to us, sat inert as a suet pudding."

When he appeared eventually as a witness at the Senate inquiry, Mr Black clashed with Cheryl Kernot, leader of the Democrats, a minor party which then held the balance of power in the Senate. In his article, he reserved his strongest vitriol for her. "Perhaps the most banal of the Australian politicians I encountered, though happily I never actually met her, was Cheryl Kernot," he wrote. "Bumptious, belligerent and cliched, she seemed a most unfortunate local permutation of the British Guardian Lady."

The feeling was mutual. When Mr Black announced on 16 December that he was selling out of Fairfax, she described him as "a boorish and incredibly pretentious person", and said: "Conrad Black was a blow-in, blow-out proprietor who exemplified all the things that are wrong with absentee landlords. He started by breaching his undertaking to appoint an Australian as chief executive of Fairfax, and I don't think he ever had any great interest in Australia other than to take the maximum amount of profit out of the company. I think he contributed very little to the development of the Fairfax newspapers."

Paul Keating appears to have impressed Mr Black slightly more than other politicians, although with characteristic reservations. He wrote of Mr Keating: "The king of all larrikins [troublemakers], a coarse autodidact with a wicked wit and a tongue that could clip a hedge, he was decisive, cunning, extremely knowledgeable and an unforgettable raconteur. Even now, after all he put us to, I find it a little hard not to like him."

Publicly, at least, Mr Keating has not been as responsive as Ms Kernot to the Black parting shots. But, according to Mr Black, Mr Keating once said that choosing between Mr Packer and Mr Black was like choosing between a gorilla and a thesaurus. "He didn't think it was much of a choice," wrote Mr Black. "But he wasn't a very Solomonic judge either."

He said the disappontment of Mr Packer, his erstwhile partner, was understandable: "Australia is his country, not mine. We could not have won without him. I did my best to accommodate him but was never under any illusion that he could be satisfied with anything but the grovelling subordination he requires of all about him."

Despite his philistinism, said Mr Black, Mr Packer "was always courteous to me and he had his moments". But he immediately added that the Australian's "unsubtle, insidious and constant undermining of our position with successive governments ... was tiresome and apparently effective". Mr Black concluded: "Kerry and I won't much miss each other but as we have a number of mutual friends, I face up with reasonable equanimity to the prospect of seeing him again."

With Canberra in the throes of a political debate about media ownership rules, many government and opposition MPs have indicated that they will not be sorry to see Mr Black withdraw to the northern hemisphere.

Fairfax now seems destined to be fought over and traded like a soap company. Even before the Kiwi proprietors have settled into their new seats, the vultures are circling. Rupert Murdoch said the other day he thought that Kerry Packer or Tony O'Reilly might end up owning the company. If that happens, Mr Black's claim to have departed Australia "undefeated" will sound rather hollow.

Black on Keating:

He schemed, revised history ... the king of all larrikins, a coarse autodidact with a wicked wit and a tongue that that could clip a hedge

Black on Packer:

I was never under any illusion that he could be satisfied with anything but the grovelling subordination that he requires of all about him

Black on Hawke: In his dying moments as Prime Minister he proved even more resistless than usual to any political pressure

Black on Kernot: The most banal of Australian politicians... bumptious, belligerent and cliched... unfortunate local permutation of `Guardian' lady