Walter Mitty life of media magnate turned robber baron

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ALL little boys have heroes, few get the chance to emulate them. Conrad Black’s hero was the press baron, William Randolph Hearst, whose empire grew to dominate the American newspaper industry in the early 20th century.

In a foreward to a biography of the newspaper legend, Black once wrote, "he was a media visionary ... All his life, Hearst had a conviction, often outrageous but sometimes magnificent, that the rules that applied to others didn’t apply to him."

The man on whom Orson Welles modelled Citizen Kane was indeed larger than life. He lived in opulence, and what did rules matter to a man who made and broke presidents? And Black, chasing his hero’s mantle has certainly broken rules, and lived in opulence.

Unfortunately, it turns out the opulence may be stolen, and when it comes to the "rules" not applying to him, corporate and judicial America may decide Black is no William Randolph Hearst.

In the US District Court in Chicago on Monday, a document landed detailing Black’s stewardship of Hollinger International, and the picture it painted was more Walter Mitty ... or rather Walter Mitty meets Tamerlane.

The report prepared by a special committee from Black’s former holding company, Hollinger International, is a relentless chronicle portraying the sack of a publicly quoted company. Black, his wife and their associates stride through its 500 pages like a mini-mongol horde, apparently pillaging and bleeding Hollinger at every turn, with an awe-inspiring disdain for good corporate governance, shareholder interest and the corporate and civil law of the United States.

It is a long story, with the first sniff of something wafting out of Hollinger’s boardroom in May 2003 - a squabble over $73 million in fees paid to Black and his chief operating officer, David Radler. But as it has unravelled it has seen Black toppled from his role as chairman and chief executive of Hollinger, a battle over the ownership of the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s biggest selling daily broadsheet, and a welter of lawsuits and counter-suits in the American courts.

What is left is a tale of personal avarice on a titanic scale, and a portrait of a man of jaw-dropping arrogance, who not only believed that he would get away with it, but that it was his right to do so.

From an early age, there was little doubt that Black was going to cut a swathe through life.

Conrad Black was born on 25 August, 1944, into relative wealth. His father, George, had been president of a big Canadian brewing company and went on to make a personal fortune by judicious stock market investments.

The young Black was to learn many lessons from his father. That the stock market was a better place to stick your dollars than ordinary gambling was taught via a fruit machine installed in the hall.

That he had also learned the value of enterprise, if not caution, first became apparent when he broke into his headmaster’s study at Upper Canada College, stole exam papers and sold them to fellow pupils. He was caught and expelled.

The experience did nothing to make him more reticent, however. In his first job as cub reporter on a Quebec local paper, the Eastern Townships Advertiser, he offered his services as adviser to a Canadian senate committee investigating the mass media.

"My experience with journalists," he announced, "authorises me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised".

He was aged 25.

He bought two local newspapers and built them over the next eight years into a moderate business, capable of taking over the Argus Corporation, a Canadian holding company with high-profile assets such as Massey-Ferguson. The assets were dumped, controversy over alleged pension raids was brazened out and political rows with local politicians dodged.

From the turmoil emerged a newspaper group controlling hundreds of titles across Canada and the US, and the genesis of Hollinger International.

The transforming deal was the purchase of the Telegraph Group in 1985 from the Berry family. Having paid just 30 million for over half the shares, he returned the business to profit within four years and discovered he had a cash cow.

The purchase of the Jerusalem Post, a stake in Australian group Fairfax, owner of the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Chicago Sun-Times followed. Like his hero, he was building an empire. Now it was time to get cracking on the lifestyle.

The first wife was fired; another, in the shape of glamorous right-wing columnist Barbara Amiel, installed. Work was also begun on his own vision of Xanadu. Black’s Xanadu was to include a 20 million home in Palm Beach, Florida, where the garden fountain alone cost 1.5m, a Park Lane apartment in New York, a home in Toronto that boasts a copper cupola in the library modelled on the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and a Kensington mansion - a snip at 13.5 million.

Then, in 2001, came the most glittering bauble of all: a peerage.

The Blacks had already set about establishing themselves in society. Their "at-homes" became legendary for their extravagance. Dining out expenses racked up to Hollinger’s corporate credit cards also included $42,870 for a "Happy Birthday, Barbara" dinner party at New York’s La Grenouille restaurant, charged at $212 a plate and including Beluga caviare, lobster ceviche and "69 bottles of fine wine".

They attended all the social events, preceded by retinues of imperial proportions and, if the events were charitable, brandishing the biggest cheque. Each donation was claimed back on Hollinger expenses.

Of course, jetset lifestyles require jets. Black had Hollinger buy two, because as his wife observed at the time: "It is always best to have two planes, because however well one plans ahead one always finds one is on the wrong continent."

But although the Blacks now had "it", Lady Black felt their grandeur was not significantly recognised, so she went to work on Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue in New York.

Lady Black has often spoken candidly in the past about her regrets: the early abortion; the old addiction to codeine and then anti-depressants. But, when the four times married, Watford-born socialite looks back over her 63 years, the one regret she will surely rue the most must be when her lobbying of Wintour led to Vogue doing a lifestyle photo-shoot in the Kensington pile.

When the magazine hit US newsstands, staring out of its glossy pages was Barbara before a single shelf holding a dozen Hermes Birkin bags: total value, more than 50,000.

The next shot was of her collection of more than 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes, each with tags of between 250 and 800. She admitted she thought nothing of spending 35,000 on a cocktail dress, and modelled a necklace worth more than 100,000. "I have an extravagance that knows no bounds," she boasted.

It was not just the envious readers of Vogue who marvelled at her taste for unlimited finery. The shareholders of Hollinger International, of which Lady Black was the vice-president, and of which her husband was chairman and chief executive, were slack-jawed.

They asked: How is it that our "modest-sized company" is allowing our millionaire boss to live a billionaire lifestyle? Then they set about finding out what was going on.

When they were finished with Black, and his chief operating officer Radler’s activities, they concluded: "The special committee knows of few parallels to Black and Radler’s brand of self-righteous and aggressive looting of Hollinger to the exclusion of all other concerns or interests ... all to satisfy the liquidity needs arising for the personal lifestyle Black and his wife had chosen to lead".

The Telegraph Group alone, it is claimed, was raided between 1998 to September 2003 for the following: 424,861 for the "use of Lord Black’s staff", including security at his home in Kensington; 50,000 for repairs and refurbishment to a Rolls-Royce owned by Black’s Ravelston company; personal expenses totalling 216,000, which included a 4,163 Concorde flight to New York, 16,620 on three separate dinners for Henry Kissinger and his wife and a bill for "summer drinks" of 13,858.

"Hollinger", says the report, "was a company where abusive practices were inextricably linked to every major development or action. Black, as both chief executive officer and controlling shareholder, together with his associates, created an entity in which ethical corruption was a defining characteristic of the leadership team."

Nor does Lady Black escape the accusations. During seven years as a vice-president of Hollinger International, it is claimed she was paid almost 6.7 million in salary, bonuses and fees by the company.

As far as Hollinger is concerned, her "lengthy list [of responsibilities] amounts to nothing more than euphemisms for ordinary activities such as reading the newspaper, having lunch, and chatting with her husband about current events".

Monday’s filing however, is only the beginning of a long legal process, that many believe can only have one conclusion: Conrad, Lord Black is going to prison. And so, too, may his wife.

"If the allegations are true he has committed a number of criminal offences under US law," said Paul Pia, a senior corporate partner at the Edinburgh law firm Burness, who specialises in American corporate law.

And what of Black tonight, as he reads through the reams of copy he has generated around the world? We know he doesn’t like journalists much, having once described them as a, "swarming, grunting masses of jackals". In fact his predicament recalls one diatribe he launched at Max Hastings, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, over an article Black felt not quite sound: "This snivelling product of some pinko journalism school administered by the John Pilger/Christopher Hitchens Trust for the propagation of liberal mendacity does not give me a high comfort level, Max".

Famous last words?