Posts Tagged ‘Conrad Black’

Lusts of the media magnates

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Political power and control of the media often go together. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newspapers, the “fourth estate” (after Lords, the Commons, and the Clergy in medieval British society), were supposed to be advocates for the people, defenders of common rights. It was the job of the press, wrote American humorist F.P. Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In Canadian history, the combination of George Brown and the Toronto Globe ranks high on the list of media power brokers. Brown used the Globe to advance the interests of his Reform party before and after Confederation. Earlier, in Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe used his Novascotian to champion better terms for his province in the Canadian federation. After winning them, he served Prime Minister John A. Macdonald as a cabinet minister. He oversaw arrangements to bring Manitoba into Canada.

That’s a bit of background to help us look at Pierre-Karl Peladeau, whose nomination by the Party Quebecois in the current Quebec election (voting day April 7) has stirred a lot of interest.

Peladeau owns a controlling interest in the massive media conglomerate, Quebecor. The business was started by his father with a scruffy tabloid sheet, le Journal de Montreal, but has since grown to include the biggest newspaper chain in Canada – Sun Media.

booksPeladeau’s appearance beside PQ leader Pauline Marois electrified the campaign when he gave a clenched fist salute as he called for Quebec to become independent. He later said the outburst indicated his “passion” in life, both for Quebec and for his company which controls an estimated forty per cent of Quebec media outlets, including cable.

For a few days, Mme. Marois was talking up sovereignty, blithering on about “no borders, no tolls” but a Quebec passport and a seat for Quebec on the board of the Bank of Canada.

Suddenly, PQ fortunes took a nose dive, confirming that Quebeckers not only don ‘t want separation, they don’t even want a referendum on separation. Unless the PQ somehow manages to reverse the tide, the election is likely to produce a majority victory for the Quebec Liberal party. It now leads in the polls, raising the question of whether Peladeau can even win his own seat. The worst outcome for him might be to win personally, but then to have to serve in the Opposition. The potential upside for PKP in this scenario is that a PQ defeat would spell the political end for Pauline Marois.

This would open up a leadership contest, adding yet more irony to this strange melange. Peladeau, who is famous for having locked out workers at his companies, is well-known for his right-wing views. How will that fit with the social democratic, left-wing core of the party?

The Peladeau story illustrates once again how the combination of power and media can produce unintended consequences.

The all-time model for media megalomania as a root cause of power lust must lie in the life of William Randolph Hearst, the American media giant of the early and mid-twentieth century. It was always Hearst’s ambition to become President, a lust well documented in Kenneth Whyte’s biography, The Uncrowned King. Heart’s life was also brilliantly magnified in Orsen Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane.

As noted above, Peladeau is not the first lord of the press to seek high political office. John Bassett, publisher of the old Toronto Telegram, ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1962. The only Canadian Prime Minister to have been a newspaper owner was Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896), publisher of the small provincial daily in Ontario, the Belleville Intelligencer.

We mustn’t forget Conrad Black, the modern exemplar of the status-hungry media baron. He importuned British PM Maggie Thatcher to the point of winning a Lordship — Lord Black of Crossharbour — and a seat in the House of Lords which the disgraced former newspaper titan still holds. (He’s been stripped of his Order of Canada). Nor does Back any longer control the newspaper empire he built out of the old Southam family chain, nor the National Post, which he launched.

Pierre-Karl Peladeau has said that if elected, he’ll put his stake in Quebecor in a blind trust. Fair enough. But he’ll continue to profit from press properties across Canada — the country from which he so passionately wishes to separate himself. Then again, as Peladeau himself has said, “that’s just business.”



Are you ever coming home, Conrad Black?

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment


Unless someone is a threat to society, I always welcome the release of a felon from prison. We jail too many people, and everyone deserves a second chance. I hold this view despite the scurrilous propaganda of the Harper povernment that tries to convince us we’re endangered by a violent crime wave (we’re not) and that stiffer prison terms will solve the problem, if one exists (they won’t).

So I welcome the news that the former media baron Conrad Black has been released on bail from a Florida prison. Judge Amy St. Eve, who sentenced Black to six and one-half years on fraud and obstruction of justice charges, will not yet allow him to return to Canada. She requires more “certainty” of his financial condition.

Black says he would like to return pending a final resolution of the charges by the U.S. Court of Appeal. “It’s noice this time of year in Toronto.” Although he’s no longer a citizen, having given this up in his pursuit of the British Lordship title he ultimately attained, he still owns the Black family mansion (heavily mortgaged) on the Bridlepath in Toronto.

Mr. Black (forget Lord Black) seems to have emerged from prison a humbled, albeit still determined, man. He’s written of new understandings he gained of his fellow man while serving time in the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex.

He’s found out that inmates are not so different from the rest of us; more often, the victims of family neglect, medical or mental health problems, and plain bad luck.

The biggest question mark hanging over his future remains the obstruction of justice charge, which the Supremes did not touch. However, in finding the government at fault in its prosecution of the “honest services” and other charges, the Court may have undermined the obstruction charge as well.

If the fraud charges are found baseless, doesn’t that also render baseless any alleged obstruction of justice in their connection?

 Conrad Black occupies a unique niche in both publishing and literature. Almost any adjective can — and has been — applied to him: spendthrift, litigious, irascible.  He is also a writer of uncommon facility, a master of words and a maker of phrases. He is as well a dauntless researcher, an erudite judge of policies and men, and an entertaining raconteur. His biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Maurice Duplessis have all earned best seller status.

He’s in the final stages of writing the second installment to his autobiography, The Fight of My Life. McClelland & Stewart hope to publish this fall.

Aside from hearing Conrad Black speak on a couple of occasions, my only direct contact with him came from standing beside him and his wife Barbara Amiel, at a Toronto airport baggage carousel. I had flown in from Israel, as I presume they had. The difference was that they had an Air Canada hostess shepherding their bags for them.

Mr. Black rendered Canadian journalism a great favor in founding The National Post. Among other things, it’s made the Globe and Mail a serious newspaper, a status it did not always possess.

He has always maintained the charges against him are groundless. Now he’s much closer to their total nullification. We hope he will soon be a completely free man, and we wish him well.

Requiem for the National Post

October 30, 2009 Leave a comment

The long, painful and inevitable death throes of The National Post — at least in its present form — seem near an end.

In Toronto, a court spent most of Friday (October 30) mulling a request from CanWest Global Communications Corp. to roll The Post, along with its other newspapers, into a new corporation separate from CanWest TV holdings.

The accounting strategy is to free up the newspapers from the colossal debt of the company’s TV arm, now around $4 billion.

Grant Robertson has an engrossing story on the failures of debt-laden CanWest in the current ROB Magazine. You can read it here.

The papers, market leaders in major cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal, are all money-makers although all are bearing wounds of the recession, and the fragmentation of media markets caused by the Internet.

CAN_NPBut the National Post is a different animal. Launched by Conrad Black in 1998, it was meant to provide a Toronto outlet for his cross-country chain of former Southam newspapers.

It also shook up Canadian journalism. Espousing a frankly right-wing bias, it brought excellent analysis and features to readers at a time when the dominant Globe and Mail was about as dreary and predictable as a newspaper could get.

From day one, the advent of the Post forced the tired Globe to wake up and reinvent itself. To its credit, it has done so, brilliantly, and is now a far superior paper to what it was eleven years ago.

The Post has never turned a profit. It lost $60 million in 2001 and is said to now be losing a million and a half a month. It owes CanWest’s parent holding company $139 million.

The big mistake of the Asper family — first the late Izzy Asper and now son Leonard — was to fund their acquisitions via debt. Now, carrying a debt load that its reduced earnings can’t handle, CanWest’s future is bleak.

Will it get so bleak that there’ll be no solution but to stanch the losses of the National Post by killing it off? And would that be enough to save CanWest from a take-over by bottom-feeders? Probably not.

A solution short of shutting down the Post completely would be to resize it as business daily, like its predecessor the tabloid Financial Post. Some potential buyers are said to be weighing this possibility.

But a successful newspaper needs to find a multi-layered audience. The Toronto Sun has done it with a weird three-way mix of heavy sports, tons of ads from electronics retailers, and crazy right-wing columns and editorials. It’s worked for the Sun, because none of these three demographics gives a damn about what else is in the paper.

It seems to me Canada isn’t big enough — especially while we’re recession-ridden — to support two national newspapers. The Post has become what I call a “broadsheet tabloid” — a paper printed in the traditional large size format of a serious newspaper, but with big headlines and sensationalist content that is better suited to a tabloid. And the two don’t mix.