Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Fall of Conrad Black
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so but there is something profoundly satisfying to see a bully and a self regarding member of the world’s power elite bite the dust so resoundingly. A very clever and rational friend of mine once tried to convince me of the existence of a moral pendulum which swung inexorably to strike down those who had specialized in selfish and malevolent behaviour. I never quite believed him-too many bastards never get their comeuppance- but the case of Conrad Black suggests that old pendulum has maybe, for once, swung a great arc of justice.
Black is a scholarly man who has written a well received biography of FDR as well as other works. He started from relatively small beginnings with a single title in Quebec in 1969 but went on to construct an empire which included scores of titles including the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, acquired in 1985. As a rampant right-winger disposing of barrels of print ink every day, he quickly became an intimate of Thatcher and filled his Hollinger International company board with powerful cronies like Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, the neo-con adviser who blew the horn so loudly and influentially for invading Iraq. He had residences in New York, London, Toronto and Palm Beach. He even owned a separate flat below his New York apartment to house his servants.
His journalist wife, Barbara Amiel, dominated the op-ed space of his major titles for as long as she wished, no doubt causing some resentment at the Telegraph and derision in other parts of Fleet St. Her spending habits were legendary-‘my extravagance knows no bounds’- and were at least in the same category as Imelda Marcos. But spending one’s own money is one thing, spending money improperly acquired from one’s parent company is quite another. According to a report by Richard Breedon, former chief of securities and exchange, it seems Black and a small group of fellow directors systematically milked Hollinger, mostly through ‘non competition fees’ supposedly paid to prevent individuals from setting up in competition. Altogether Breedon claimed they had stolen $400m, a figure exceeding 95% of the company’s profits.
‘Corporate kleptocracy’ was the delicious term used to describe the operation. He tells a tale of expenses fiddles on a cosmic scale, private jets, corporate money used for a vast range of purely private purposes; hubris unconfined. Black denies all the charges and has counter sued those who he claims, quite accurately, have turned him into a ‘loathsome laughing stock.’ His problem is that his second in command, David Radler took a plea bargain in exchange for blowing the whistle on Black who now faces prosecution by the relentless Patrick Fitzgerald, who threatens also to be the nemesis of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff.
Black, 61, faces the possibility of 40 years in jail, enough to see him out. And in the US senior execs really do go to jail, witness Bernie Ebbers of World Com. Such falls from grace are often described as tragic and regret expressed that a talented man through exceeding his proper share of rewards, has fallen so low. Yes, maybe, but Black was not a pleasant man by every account I’ve read and I’m quite pleased to see someone who radiated contempt for the ordinary man about to get some of what he handed out so prodigally. Swing low (and wide) sweet Pendulum.