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On the Hollinger/Conrad Black Divorce

Conrad’s Follies:

Ah, the tribulations of the over-fed, overpaid, and the overly loquacious.

Conrad Black, AKA Senator Black of Back Harbour or whatever picturesque Scottish moor Hollinger purchased in order to secure a British House of Lords chair for its CEO to doze in, is in the news these days on two fronts. First, he has resigned as the CEO of Hollinger Inc. and faces the auctioning off of his empire, including the flagship paper in his truncated empire, The Telegraph. The resignation comes under something of a cloud, an audible degree of Hollinger shareholder merry-making, and the predictable onslaught of overweight adjectives from Black himself.

Not that you could tell any of this from the National Post’s adulatory and extensive coverage, which filled several pages of the paper’s first section on November 18th, and occupied the deep thoughts of several business section columnists, including Terence Corcoran, who normally just writes about how we ought to disband the government. The front page headline read “’Chastened’ Black Steps Down”. It was accompanied photo of Black looking anything but humbled. The lead story, which reverently referred to Black as “Lord Black” (I prefer to think of him as merely a “senator”, which all he’d be within this dominion) dutifully reported Black’s typically long-winded explanation of his defenestration, including a ludricrous simile in which Black’s admiration for Rocket Richard is invoked, and to which Black remarks that “I suppose I’m having a two-minute period in the penalty box.” Later in the story, the senator is described, in breathless tones, as “a noted military historian and author of historical books who enjoyed sparring with journalists and critics of his business practices and conservative views, both in print and in court.” All true, but in a subsidiary sentence clause?

Also on the front page was a column by Robert Fulford on Black. Fulford, who is, other things being equal, the last remaining card-carrying intellectual writing for the paper wasn’t writing about Black’s forced resignation, even though he devoted nearly half the very long column to descriptions of how cool the senator was under fire, and ended by comparing him to Napoleon the day after the Battle of Waterloo. Fulford was writing about Black’s just published doorstopper biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which the senator was flogging at the downtown Toronto Indigo store the same day with the help of Heather Reisman. At 1280 pages, the biography is vintage Black, and when I ran into Fulford a couple of days later, he claimed to have read most of it, and said he thought it was the least overwritten of Black’s books. “A big subject matter,” he explained, and didn’t respond one way or another when I asked him how many pages the book would have been had anyone else written it. Fulford isn’t a man with a glass head, so I couldn’t tell what he really thinks of Black, but it was clear he found the Roosevelt biography both competent and illuminating. Good enough for me.

I suspect Fulford is in the same basic neighbourhood I’m in when it comes to Conrad Black. It’s hard not to be slightly sentimental about this guy after the Aspers have turned the National Post into a malnourished, slogan-shrieking parody of the ideologically-dedicated journal Black spent a stunning amount of Hollinger shareholder dollars creating. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as some have, casting him as a journalistic knight in shiny blue-and-brass armour, but it’s hard not to admire a filthy rich guy who spend his nights writing and reading, and gets in trouble with his shareholders for buying Roosevelt’s private papers without the proper authorization. Most of his CEO colleagues prefer million dollar birthday parties, with ice-carved larger-than-life table decorations of Michaelangelo’s David that can pour vodka out of his pecker. Senator Black may be a pirate, but he isn’t a barbarian, and he’s openly in love with a wife who, given the crazy terms of today’s capitalist stratosphere, might actually warrant million dollar birthday parties.

Despite the wall-to-wall business page coverage of what is clearly a life-and-death struggle between Hollinger’s shareholders and Senator Black, it’s not exactly clear what’s really at stake. Do the dissident shareholders, who seem to be puppeteered from a New York City fund management company named Tweedy Brown, simply want an end to Black’s capricious management so they can bottom-line like a typical corporation, or are there more serious fiscal doings afoot? The fact that the audit committee the shareholder group appointed has Fred Eaton, Doug Bassett and Alan Gottlieb on it smacks more of Rosedale dinner party squabbles than serious accounting, at least if you’re going by demonstrated expertise. I’d be more inclined to hire that group to run a demolition derby than to upgrade management styles or add up the bottom line, but maybe I’m missing something.

What I can say is that I’ll probably buy a copy of the Roosevelt biography—when it gets remaindered, and when I can afford the wheelbarrow to cart it home in. In the meantime, what Conrad Black thinks about FDR will likely be far more interesting—and more easily understood—than any of the revelations forthcoming from the Hollinger/Conrad Black divorce.

842 words: November 22, 2003

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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