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Sunday 18 March 2007

Colourful man aroused by excess may not be as Black as he is painted

I HAVE two soft spots - one serious and one frivolous - for Lord (Conrad) Black, who is at present in court in Chicago, facing 17 charges of fraud, deserted by many old friends and colleagues and threatened with the possibility of a jail sentence of 101 years.

The serious one is that until he messed things up, he was a newspaper proprietor of brilliance and integrity. He appointed good, independent-minded editors - albeit of a conservative bent - and then left them free to do their jobs: it was reassuring for Telegraph or Spectator readers to read occasional letters from the proprietor in their letters pages disagreeing, as a private citizen, with their editorial line.

When in 1985 this rather obscure Canadian entrepreneur bought into the Telegraph group, it had lost its way both commercially and journalistically. Black understood well the formula that had made the paper successful in the past: "an excellent, fair, concise, informative newspaper; good sports coverage; a page three in which the kinkiest, gamiest, most salacious and most scatological stories in Britain were set out in the most apparently sober manner, but with sadistically explicit quotations from court transcripts; and extreme veneration of the Royal Family".

He hired new editors and instructed them to stick to the formula but rejuvenate their papers and take them up-market: within 12 months The Daily Telegraph had been given the coveted title 'Newspaper of the Year' by the legendary TV programme What the Papers Say.

Black held his nerve through a financially damaging price war with The Times, initiated by Rupert Murdoch, and the Telegraph became and remained the market leader among the qualities. In North America, by 1990, his companies owned around 400 papers, and, in 1998, he took the enormous risk of launching the National Post - a conservative and innovative Canadian paper which not only proved to be a success, but which raised the game of its dull competitors.

The frivolous soft spot is for Black's massive contributions to the gaiety of nations by offending almost everyone. How could one not enjoy a newspaper proprietor who tells a journalism review that "my experience with journalists authorizes me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised. The 'profession' is heavily cluttered with abrasive youngsters who substitute 'commitment' for insight, and to a lesser extent, with aged hacks toiling through a miasma of mounting decrepitude". He had a special affection for the "swarming, grunting masses of jackals calling themselves 'investigative journalists' ".

Fellow proprietors were not spared.

Rupert Murdoch "is so cynical, he has no feel for product quality or integrity". And Express newspapers were published "by a mutant smut and defamation company, run by a pornographer and a couple of ex-convicts".

Henry Kissinger - a director of Black's Hollinger International - sounds "like the Marx Brothers imitating Kaiser Wilhelm".

But it was through his marriage in 1992 to his second wife, Barbara Amiel, that Black became a source of interest and amusement to a world beyond the press or business.

Amiel had many admirers as a tough, provocative and trenchant columnist on The Times, Sunday Times and, later, the Telegraph, but readers like me were fascinated to discover, by degrees, some of her other talents. I still remember my surprise when the Telegraph ran an article by Black extolling women's legs and particularly those of his wife. Although she was 52 (and on her fourth marriage) at this time, she was undoubtedly a looker and a fabulous clothes horse. But there was clearly more to it than that.

Although Black had never been frugal, and had frequently been accused of bending financial regulations, he now became recklessly, irresponsibly, flamboyantly extravagant, living like the billionaire Amiel wanted him to be rather than the millionaire he was. There was much gossip about what her hold over him was, which was fuelled by such remarks of hers as: "My dears, apart from Anatole France and Albert Schweitzer, there is no man interested in anything but sex."

(Comparisons have been made between Black and the Duke of Windsor, who gave up his throne for a twice-divorced stick insect. The other day I read an interview with Edward Fox, who played the lead in the TV series Edward and Mrs Simpson. "Do you know what Wallis's hold was over him," Fox asked his interviewer. "Sex?" she suggested. He replies: "Do you know what her gynaecologist told me? He said: 'She could make a matchstick feel like a Havana cigar.' ")

In need of money for designer clothes and shoes and handbags as well as holidays and parties and houses and servants and private planes, Black more and more began to use his companies as his wallet and its possessions as his own. His happiest hour was when in 2001 he became Lord Black of Crossharbour - although this required him to renounce his Canadian citizenship. His response to what he considered impertinent questions became increasingly arrogant. "There has not been an occasion for many months when I got on our plane without wondering whether it was really affordable," he said in 2002, "but I'm not prepared to re-enact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of nobility. We have to find a balance between an unfair taxation on the company and a reasonable treatment of the founders-builders-managers."

Accused of fraud, money laundering, racketeering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice, Black denies everything, describes himself as a "victim of corporate governance terrorists" and maintains a brave exterior.

"When everyone is finished dancing on my grave, they may be disconcerted to find I am not in it," he wrote in 2004. Now, accompanied to court daily by his wife - now modestly clad in clothes their advisers hope won't alienate poor jurors - he has ordered 150 T-shirts declaring 'Conrad will win'.

Anything is possible. Black has good lawyers and he may get off. Still, at least he won't be given a state funeral.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards