The Undoing of Lord Black

As of last weekend, Conrad Black, the famous media mogul, is no longer a media mogul at all: He has sold his newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph of London, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Jerusalem Post. He did so just as his company, Hollinger International Inc., sued him for $200 million, accusing him of showing “contempt” for his shareholders and using company funds to pay for homes — in London, New York and Palm Beach, Fla. — as well as for airplanes, butlers and shoes for his wife, who once told Vogue magazine, in an interview she surely regrets, that her “extravagance knows no bounds.”

(Full declaration of interest: In the early 1990s I was the deputy editor of the Spectator, a British magazine owned, and well run, by Conrad Black. After I resigned he wrote me a furious letter containing insults of the kind most people use in missives to their ex-wives, not their junior employees. In principle, my unconscious biases could run either way.)

In this country, the demise of Lord Black — as he became, after renouncing his Canadian citizenship to become a British peer — has been observed, wrongly, through an American lens. There have been articles underlining his connections to prominent Americans and lurid descriptions of him as the leader of an “incestuous media-political complex.”

All of this misses the point, because the story of the rise and fall of Lord Black is in fact a gloriously British tragedy. Its literary precedents include Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” which chronicles the rise and fall of Melmotte, a crooked foreign financier who buys his way into Victorian society and then crashes, to the immense satisfaction of all. In the 1930s, Eveyln Waugh’s “Scoop” also contained a description of Lord Copper, an all-powerful press baron who keeps a “chryselephantine effigy” of himself outside his office, “in coronation robes, rising above a throng, on a polygonal malachite pedestal.”

Like Lord Copper, Lord Black reveled in his own ambition. I once attended a Hollinger dinner at which he seated himself between the Princess of Wales and Margaret Thatcher, across from Henry Kissinger and the crown princess of Jordan. One can only admire his nerve. Like Melmotte, he often acted as if he were too grand for the rules of law and etiquette that applied to ordinary people. He openly voiced his scorn for the “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised” journalists who worked for him, the “self-righteous hypocrites” who bought shares in his company, as well as the citizens of Canada, a country “without a serious political opposition,” whose “capricious and antagonistic” prime minister had refused to allow him to remain Canadian and receive a British peerage. No wonder the grins of some of his former employees — and former fellow citizens — are so wide this week.

But what seems odd about Lord Black’s career, in retrospect, is not just that it resembled the plots of 19th-century novels but that he was so 19th century in his understanding of his own power. His burning desire for a title was actually rather quaint, given that the British House of Lords, recently stripped of its hereditary nobles, is hardly the influential body that it was 200 years ago. In a world dominated by live television news and webcasts, the notion that a newspaper can change political culture is no less old-fashioned. Yet that calculation led him to launch Canada’s right-of-center National Post in 1998, a decision that may have caused his financial downfall. His old-fashioned view of the world was also part of why those employees who didn’t loathe him loved him. Eccentrically, he appointed witty writers, not gray but competent managers, to run his newspapers. When they proved to be ideological opponents, he wrote thundering, eloquent letters to the editor but didn’t fire them.

Most of all, though, the very idea that he would influence the world from the drawing room of his grand house near Hyde Park — as if the British Empire were still in business — marks Lord Black, an admirer of “great men” such as Napoleon and FDR, as charmingly out of touch in an era of multinational media conglomerates and satellite television oligopolies. What is also notable, in the long list of his properties, is that he had none in Washington, where much less money still buys you a much bigger house, where the world’s savviest influence-peddlers long ago set up permanent residence, and where most of the politicians who really matter are to be found.

As a result, his “incestuous media-political complex” existed mainly in the minds of his enemies. Lord Black opposed Canada’s left-wing consensus but failed to change it. His British newspapers opposed Tony Blair, who was duly reelected. He supported the invasion of Iraq, but so did others, and his voice was hardly decisive. In the two decades that have passed since Conrad Black bought the Daily Telegraph, aspiring to be Lord Copper, changes in both media and politics have made that sort of aspiration, and that sort of influence, obsolete. If he’d noticed that earlier and just stuck to producing the good writing he loved, he might still own a few newspapers today.

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