The Fall of Lord Blackadder and Lady Manolo (of Blahnik)

Kevin Michael GraceMark Steyn once told me a revealing story about Conrad Black’s “conservative” Canadian national newspaper, the National Post. It seems star columnist David Frum had ventured this evaluation: “The Post has a problem. It was started to save Canada, but Canada isn’t worth saving.”

Ah, the authentic voice of the Canadian neoconservative! Or, as English journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft would say, the “self-hating Canadian.” (Same thing, actually.) Steyn remains a Canadian citizen but persists in playing the “one-man global content provider.” Frum, as we know, coined the infamous phrase “Axis of Evil” before finally taking American citizenship.

Conrad Black actually renounced his Canadian citizenship—and in a patently insulting manner. “For a wide range of reasons,” he announced in 2001, “citizenship of Canada is not now for me competitive with that of the United Kingdom and the European Union.” A year earlier, when he shocked Canada by selling his newspaper semi-monopoly (except for half of the Post, later sold for one dollar, and a few minor local papers) to Izzy Asper, stalwart defender of Black’s nemesis, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, he explained: “The reputation of Canada is not particularly great amongst American investors, and the big presence we had there was not doing the valuation of our stock any good.” So long, suckers.

As investors would later discover, however, most damaging to the valuation of Black’s media company, Hollinger, was Black himself. And his “wide range of reasons” was rather narrow. Black was determined to enter Britain’s House of Lords, and, in order to do so, he was required to quit Canada. The vicious Chrétien had blocked Black’s ennoblement with reference to a fiendishly obscure Canadian parliamentary resolution. Chrétien insisted Canadian citizens could not accept British honors; laughable, but Tony Blair took fright. Black got his ermine robe in 2001, but if he had known in 1999 the disasters that would befall him—disgrace, divestment, threats of bankruptcy and imprisonment—he might have said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

He might have. You see, Conrad Black, like his hero Napoleon, is never happy (if that is the right word) unless at war on all fronts. Perhaps this has something to do with being Canadian. For so many Canadians, their birthright is as easily discarded as a tissue. Black carries his like a cross.

Or perhaps Black’s wrath is congenital. His father, George Black, a brewery executive, retired from business (and largely from life) at 48. Soon after the death of his wife in 1976, after spending the evening with Conrad, he walked up his circular staircase and then crashed through the banister to the floor below. His son rushed him to hospital, where he died the next day. In 1982, Black told biographer Peter Newman that his father’s last words to him that night had been: “Life is hell, most people are bastards, and everything is bullsh-t.” (Black later denied this account to biographer Richard Siklos, author of the fine Shades of Black.)

Conrad Black was always singular. Born in 1944, he grew up in his own wing of the later death-haunted Toronto home. He was chauffeured to school at the elite Upper Canada College (UCC). An autodidact obsessed with military history and strategy, he bought his first stock at eight but was hardly a laissez-faire capitalist. He recounts in his autobiography, “One of the few substantive political differences I had had with my father was over his view that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a socialist, if not a communist. He has always been, next to Abraham Lincoln, the American leader I most admired.”

Napoleon, FDR, and Lincoln: not the heroes of a conservative; rather, the heroes of a power worshiper. Black, however, is not a man who has ever had much use for authority, when not wielded by him. He compared UCC to a “concentration camp” and was expelled in 1959 after selling examination papers he and three others had stolen. According to his autobiography, he is “neither proud nor ashamed of what happened.” Black’s first felony was highly profitable (“a margin of 100 per cent, as I had no cost of sales”); he realized $1,400 (about $9,500 Canadian today).

Black entered poorly regarded Carleton University in Ottawa, where he remained a diffident student and enjoyed an old-fashioned, chaste bachelordom of cards, tobacco, and booze. After graduation, he enrolled in Toronto’s prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School but left after a year.

It was only after Black moved to Quebec in 1966 that he began to make his fortune. Black was that rarest of Anglo-Canadians—a Francophile. He learned French (something few Anglos did or do), took a law degree at Laval in Quebec City and an M.A. in history from McGill in Montreal and began his laudatory biography of Maurice Duplessis, published in 1977. Duplessis, premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and from 1944 until his death in 1959, was fiercely Catholic, conservative, and nationalist. His Quebec was hated by Pierre Trudeau and swept away by the Quiet Revolution.

It was in Quebec that Black got into journalism and met his lifelong partners, David Radler and Peter White. Radler became Black’s chief operating officer and hatchet man; White has been a prime mover in Conservative politics for decades and was prime minister Brian Mulroney’s principal secretary.

They began buying small Quebec (and later British Columbian) newspapers. Radler “phased-out” employees by the cartload and made the papers profitable. Black handled the editorial side and developed his prose style—orotund, sesquipedalian, bombastic—the worst of Winston Churchill and William F. Buckley, Jr.

In the 1970’s, Black (with the initial help of his brother Monte) became Canada’s most controversial businessman. He established the modus operandi that has served him well: holding companies controlling holding companies controlling holding companies, almost into infinity. It would take a monumental essay or a stupendous flow chart to establish what Black owns and whereby he owns it.

Black sweet-talked his way into control of Argus Corp and stripped its assets. He abandoned manufacturer Massey-Ferguson and sold Dominion Stores, after management had removed $62 million from its union pension fund (reduced to $30 million after court action) and after Black had accused the supermarket chain’s employees of being thieves. He admitted it was “sad” that so many employees had lost their jobs but added, “It’s sometimes difficult for me to work myself into an absolute lachrymose fit about a work force that steals on that scale.”

An attempt to sweet-talk his way into control of Hanna Mining of Cleveland turned sour. Hanna filed a fraud and racketeering suit against Black, and he narrowly avoided being charged in 1982 with misrepresentation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Black ultimately settled with Hanna and signed an SEC consent decree.

The Ontario Securities Commission recommended Black be charged, but he was not. Black was now established as Canada’s unacceptable face of capitalism: if not a crook, then certainly sailing dangerously close to the wind. Black did not see it that way. He execrated his opponents as conspirators or “socialists” determined to hobble the successful.

After buying out Monte, Black turned his attention overseas. By 1985, the venerable Telegraph newspapers were moribund, despite being the best-selling British quality newspapers. Union insubordination was killing them, and the Berry family, which controlled them, desperately needed new investment. Black stepped in with ten million pounds. But dear old Lord Hartwell, chief of the Berry clan, had misapprehended the seriousness of the crisis. He was forced again to turn to Black, who offered another £20 million—in exchange for 50.1 percent of the company. Hartwell surrendered. One month later, Rupert Murdoch crushed the unions at Wapping. Black was now the owner of a gold mine, bought for a mere £30 million. The Telegraph newspapers are now valued at £700 million.

Conrad Black was now one of the most powerful men in Britain and determined to exercise his influence, not merely on his adopted country but on the entire “Anglosphere.” A Hollinger advisory board was established. Among those who accepted $25,000 annually to attend one-day gabfests were Margaret Thatcher, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Perle, George Will, and William F. Buckley, Jr.

Telegraph profits were used to buy the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post, the London Spectator, and Australia’s Fairfax newspapers. Fairfax was sold after Black alleged in his autobiography that Prime Minister Paul Keating had attempted to suborn him, precipitating a national scandal and a parliamentary investigation.

By 1995, only Gannett and Rupert Murdoch bested Black in worldwide circulation. Black had not forgotten Canada, however. He bought the Southam chain in 1996, which, added to the purchase of nearly every other significant independent paper in English Canada, made him truly Canada’s newspaper lord. Liberal and liberal, Southam exemplified everything Black hated about Canada. Canadian journalists had always been wary of Black, mainly because of his habit of suing them. Now they were terrified.

(Full disclosure: I have had no dealings of any kind with Conrad Black, although David Radler once took a malign interest in me. I was promised—by its editor—the position of deputy editor of the National Post’s business section, but the man who blackballed me was neither Conrad Black nor David Radler.)

To his credit, Black greatly improved his Canadian newspapers, and the Post did valuable work exposing several of Chrétien’s many scandals. To Black’s discredit, he imposed on them a new orthodoxy as oppressive as the old had been. The old Southam was old liberal: antipatriotic, globalist, and reflexively antibusiness, anti-Israel, and anti-American. The new Southam was new liberal: antipatriotic, globalist, and reflexively pro-business, pro-Israel, and pro-American. Under Black, the Post was obsessed with Israel; reading it, you could not escape the feeling that Canada had somehow acquired an 11th province in the Middle East. (This became even worse under Izzy Asper.) Black’s Post was infatuated with celebrity and sexual deviance and dismissive of culture. Black refused, pointedly, to fight the suppression of press freedom in Canada and suffered two of his papers to grovel before human-rights commissions—a far cry from the Telegraph.

It is also to Black’s credit that he did not wreck the Telegraph, although it became duller and ever more neoconservative (as did the Spectator) and headed downmarket relentlessly after a cover-price war with Murdoch’s Times. In England, at least, Black was something of a model proprietor, refusing to fire A.N. Wilson or Taki even after ugly public quarrels over Israel, preferring, instead, to inveigh against them and his myriad other enemies in the pages of his publications.

Black inherited many enemies with his second marriage. His first wife, Shirley, was an already-married company secretary when Black impregnated her. (She later changed her name to Joanna, after faux-sophisticate Black rejected Catherine as “too common.”)

Black converted to Catholicism in 1986. According to Richard Siklos, he

described the occasion to . . . author Ron Graham. It took place in [Archbishop of Toronto] Cardinal Carter’s private chapel. Apparently Black told the Cardinal he was ready to join, and Carter said he would be welcome. . . . A debate ensued over The Truth. Eventually, an agreement was struck. “Then Emmett called for champagne, to celebrate,” Black recalled. “So I didn’t exactly go to them on my knees.”

Indeed. In 2000, during a strike at the Black-owned Calgary Herald, Black excoriated strike supporter Bishop Fred Henry as a “jumped-up little twerp” and a “prime candidate for an exorcism.” Ironically, perhaps, Henry is the only Canadian bishop faithful enough to the magisterium to have threatened a pro-abortion Catholic politician (Joe Clark) with sanctions.

Shirley/Joanna divorced Black and married a defrocked priest. Conrad wed the thrice-divorced Jewish atheist Barbara Amiel at the Chelsea Registry Office in 1992. Yet Black is consistently described as Canada’s leading Catholic layman. British-born, childless (Black has three), and four years older than her husband, the pneumatic Amiel is a once-talented journalist who edited the Toronto Sun, a fiercely anti-Trudeau tabloid, in the 1980’s. She is also, reputedly, the model for the villainess in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. When Black met her, she wrote a column for the Times (since translated to the Telegraph, where it remains).

Black was dubbed Blackadder (after the Rowan Atkinson character) by the Canadian scandal sheet Frank. Amiel has proved to be his Lady Macbeth—or, more to the point, his Lady Manolo (of Blahnik). An Observer profile commented that, “To understand Barbara, you must first understand that she has been very keen to be very rich for a very long time.” Amiel herself told Vogue, “I have an extravagance that knows no bounds” and posed for pictures that proved it.

Under Amiel’s tutelage, the bumptious Black became a lord and then a social lion. Questions, however, began to be asked (particularly by institutional investors Tweedy Browne): Who was paying for the private jets; the maintenance of the mansions in Toronto, Palm Beach, and London; the apartment in New York and the tab at Le Cirque 2000; the eight million dollars for FDR’s papers for Black’s door-stopping biography? Why were the Telegraphs forced to shed staff and resources even as they continued to turn a handsome profit?

As late as 2003, Black fired back in characteristic fashion: Tweedy Browne were “corporate governance terrorists.” Black, champion of Napoleon, now appealed to the ancien régime: “I’m not prepared to re-enact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of nobility.” In November, Lord Black’s Bastille was stormed. The Hollinger board announced it had discovered $32 million in secret and unauthorized payments, $7 million each to Black and Radler, which they agreed to pay back. (Black reneged.) Black, Radler, and their minions were fired, and Black’s assets were put up for sale.

Lawsuits against Black, for $200 million (and counting), were filed. His fortune, whatever it was, is beyond his grasp. Black had seemingly forgotten, or more likely arrogantly ignored, that Hollinger was a public company of which he was a minority shareholder. When he and Radler sold properties such as Southam, they demanded millions in personal “non-compete” payments, even though they were in no condition to compete. They did so even when they sold properties to themselves. It is impossible to regard these payments as anything other than kickbacks (in the first instance) and outright theft (in the second).

In January, Black attempted to escape from his Elba. He sold the controlling stake in Hollinger to the Barclay Brothers, owners of Edinburgh’s Scotsman newspapers. He met his Waterloo, however, the next month, when a Delaware judge quashed the sale and called him a liar.

No one is terrified of Conrad Black anymore. He and Lady Black are laughingstocks in Canada, America, and Britain—although Taki still has kind words for them. Oh, and remember that SEC consent decree? Having filed a false report to the SEC regarding his illicit compensation, Black now is at risk of criminal charges. Rumor has it he will flee to Canada, which, for all its sins, has an agreeably lax securities regime. For such a self-hating Canadian, this would surely be worse than St. Helena.

Kevin Michael Grace lives in Victoria, British Columbia. He runs the website

This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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