The Napoleon complex: profile; Conrad Black

It's not just about newspapers. Mark Honigsbaum on a tycoon with a sense of his own destiny
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Rupert Murdoch never misses an opportunity to needle his competitors and this month was no exception. Two weeks ago, under the headline "Sunday Telegraph all-time low", Murdoch's Sunday Times boasted that "full-price" sales of Conrad Black's Sunday Telegraph had slumped to 429,000 and now trailed the Sunday Times by 800,000 copies a week.

As a major international proprietor, with interests in over 200 papers worldwide, Black is inordinately proud of his Telegraph titles. And like his military heroes - Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte - he believes in leading from the front. In a blistering fusillade, Black retorted that the Sunday Telegraph's true circulation, adding in subscription sales, was "nearly 900,000", just 300,000 short of the Sunday Times.

"It is indicative of the hysteria that the inexorable rise of the circulation of the Sunday Telegraph has caused to our friendly competitors at the Sunday Times that they headlined their story last Sunday with a mendacious reference to us rather than any claim of success for themselves," he wrote.

Behind his bluster, though, there is little doubt that Black's US-based holding company, Hollinger International, is feeling the pinch.

"I think Conrad would regard it as a miracle that Murdoch, with all his resources, hasn't done him in yet," admits Frank Johnson, who edits Black's Spectator magazine. "He realises he's got a hell of a fight and that he's the underdog." It is not a position that comes easily to Black.

AS BEFITS someone born on 25 August 1944 - the day Paris was liberated from the Nazis - Conrad Black has always had a prodigious sense of his own destiny. And it is through newspaper proprietorship that he has achieved the recognition he always felt was his due.

Although Black's grandfather had briefly been a business partner of Harold Harmsworth, the original Viscount Rothermere, it was from his father, George Montegu Black Jr, that Black learned the art of corporate warfare, the importance of historical perspective and that gambling provides a disappointing rate of return compared to the Dow Jones index. The president of Canadian Breweries, George Montegu was a shrewd businessman famed for his agility at mental calculation. But at the age of 47 he fell out with his chairman, Edward P Taylor, and found himself redundant. He hid his disappointment by turning to the stock market and channelling his ambitions into his son.

The young Conrad was precocious. At the age of eight he sank his life savings of $60 into a single share of General Motors. He also became obsessed with Napoleon, and would astound his father's friends by reeling off details of campaigns. Another story has him washing dollar bills and hanging them out to dry on a line outside his father's home in Toronto. The last is apocryphal - Black says he slipped in the mud and was cleaning his change - but the image of the young capitalist, wise beyond his years, is accurate. His childhood tutor, the historian Laurier LaPierre, once asked Black why he always seemed to have the air of someone waiting for something to happen. Black's response was that since the age of seven he had been waiting to become chairman of Argus Corp, the powerful Canadian trust company which owned Dominion Stores, Massey-Ferguson and Hollinger Mines, and in which his father had a strategic shareholding. "It will come, one day," he prophesied.

As in most things, time would prove Black right, but first there was the small matter of university. He opted for Laval, a French-speaking college in Quebec. It was an unusual choice for a wealthy English-speaking boy from Toronto, but Black had visited Europe and been impressed by Gallic culture - particularly the concept of la mesure, the idea that the capitalist dynamic should be tempered to individual tastes and preferences. He had also begun to take a keen interest in newspapers and to pepper his conversation with references to Northcliffe and Beaverbrook.

His first paper, the Eastern Townships Advertiser in Knowlton, near Montreal, was really a hobby horse to keep him occupied between studies. But by the time he graduated, Black had acquired another newspaper, the Sherbrooke Record, and had established a reputation as a polemicist. Infuriated by what he regarded as the partisanship of English-language journalists opposed to the separatist cause in Quebec, Black had told a Senate committee on the mass media, "My experience with journalists authorises me to record that a very large number are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised." Black was just 26 and his submission was regarded as pompous and presumptuous in the extreme. But, as his former tutor explains, such criticisms miss the point. "Conrad's entire sense of life revolved around the idea that, through a combination of circumstance, accidents and evolution, God is granting him this extraordinary power that he must guard well and pass on," recalled LaPierre. "He has always felt himself to be a genuine instrument of history."

In the summer of 1976 Black's mother, Betty, died, followed 10 days later by his father. Black could take control of Argus and set about achieving his wider ambitions. His assault on the Argus board was his defining moment and established the blueprint for his subsequent newspaper acquisitions, including his 1985 takeover of Lord Hartwell's Telegraph. Starting with just 22 per cent of Argus, Black outmanoeuvred the ageing and befuddled board members through alliances with key minority shareholders, eventually taking control of the $4bn company for a total outlay of $18m. Similarly, Black's initial 14 percent stake in the Telegraph cost him just $10m and by the time he had finished floating the Telegraph Group on the stock market in 1992 he had spent just pounds 119m in return for a company valued at nearly half a billion pounds.

The Telegraph deal has been described (by Tony O'Reilly, the Irish newspaper tycoon and Heinz boss) as "the coup of the century". By 1993 Black's newspaper empire stretched from Montreal to Melbourne. But if Black's audacious deal-making won him admiration on this side of the Atlantic, in Canada it had created a very different reaction. In 1983 Black had been investigated over alleged securities act violations. And in 1985 he attracted further public opprobrium when he announced he was withdrawing tens of millions from Dominion Stores' pension fund at the same time as laying off a number of the food company's employees. No charges were brought in the securities investigation and there was no evidence Black's raid on Dominion's funds was for personal profit, but the image of Black as a ruthless operator stuck. As a Canadian journalist, writing in the Spectator, put it at the time of Black's Telegraph bid, "One searches for a spirit of sacrifice in Mr Black's career and finds self-help."

The newspaper proprietor with whom Black is most often compared is that other self-serving Canadian, Lord Beaverbook. Like Beaverbrook, Black considers himself an historian first and a proprietor second. Like Beaverbrook, he enjoys the sound of his own floridly expressed opinions. And, like Beaverbrook, the model for Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, Black is easy to lampoon. A few years ago, for instance, the rumour went round Fleet Street that Black had bought Napoleon's preserved penis at an auction. Black denied it, but many remain convinced that Bonaparte's body part sits in Black's collection of military curios.

Unlike Beaverbrook, however, Black is no philanderer and is devoted to his second wife, the former Sunday Times columnist Barbara Amiel. They are said to be intellectual soul mates and the parties at their four-storey mansion in Kensington are famous for bringing together a cross-section of the great and good.

Unlike Beaverbrook - or Murdoch for that matter - Black is known for giving his editors a long rein. In his diaries, Alan Clark recalls how at a dinner party at John Aspinall's house in 1990 he tried to persuade Black to reprimand Max Hastings, the then editor of the Daily Telegraph, over his editorial backing for Michael Heseltine. Black pointedly refused, despite his known support for Thatcher.

Behind closed doors, however, he let his views be known. Former executives recall how he would stalk the Telegraph corridors railing against what he called "wobbly thinkers" on the paper. And when in 1994 he appointed the Eurosceptic Simon Heffer as Hastings' deputy it was clear he meant to move his papers to the right.

Three years later, the political shift is complete: the fogeyish Charles Moore is installed at the helm of the daily and Dominic Lawson at the Sunday. However, Black's editorial tinkering cannot mask the commercial reality that today many readers are paying nearly pounds 2 a week less for their Telegraphs than they were before Murdoch launched his price war. Meanwhile, the Times is only 300,000 copies behind Black's daily.

Although Murdoch's price-cutting strategy is thought to be costing him more than Black's subscription scheme - pounds 30m a year as opposed to about pounds 20m - News International has much deeper pockets than Hollinger. "The trouble is, it's a game of poker and Rupert is holding more chips," says a former Telegraph executive. "Conrad would like to feel he is in the same league as Rupert, but the truth is he really ought to be playing with someone a bit smaller."

However, John Honderich, publisher of the Toronto Star - one of the few Canadian newspapers yet to be snapped up by Black - believes Black has even bigger ambitions. "He wants to be a major media player around the world. There's no question that power and owning newspapers is what he's about. It's what he's always been about."

Black is enough of a realist, however, to recognise this may be one war he cannot win. But as he contemplates his next move, he could do worse than ponder the portraits of Napoleon and Nelson that adorn opposite walls of his Canary Wharf office. One shows his hero Napoleon in defeat after the battle of Waterloo; the other is of Nelson in victory after the battle of Trafalgar. What, a curious interviewer once asked, is the significance of the juxtaposition?

"Napoleon lost and survived and Nelson won and died." replied Black.