Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

From Brewer to Media Baron: the Rise of Britain’s Lord Black

January 5, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Conrad Black — or Lord Black of Crossharbour, as he is officially known in Britain — is an old-fashioned media baron with few contemporary peers.

Born in Canada in 1944 to a wealthy brewing family, Black began buying newspapers while he was still an undergraduate at Carleton University in Ottawa.

By the age of 25, he had developed a disdain for journalists and a thundering way of expressing it.

“My experience with journalists authorizes me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised,” he wrote to a Canadian Senate committee investigating the mass media in 1971.

When a financial scandal threatened to bring Black down more than 30 years later, some journalists repaid the compliment.

“He is your typical verbose, bombastic megalomaniac, and they never go quietly,” British media commentators Roy Greenslade told the Scotsman newspaper.

But Andreas Whittam-Smith, co-founder of the Independent in London, was more generous.

“He’s a larger-than-life character and an original thinker,” Whittam-Smith told the Guardian.

A convert to Catholicism, Black renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to accept a British peerage and become Lord Black.

He has surrounded himself with powerful people, including Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, a Pentagon insider. Both sit on the boards of companies Black runs.

His homes in London, New York, Toronto and Palm Beach, Florida, are worth $40 million, Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper estimated in November.

Black’s directly-held shares in Hollinger are worth just under $200 million, the paper estimated, and Black also holds shares in Hollinger via investment vehicles.

Black is credited with the spectacular turnaround of Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

The paper was considered on the verge of failure when he acquired control of it in 1986 at knock-down prices.

Today it is the jewel in the crown of his media empire, Britain’s best-selling quality newspaper, earning around $70 million a year.

Black’s wife, Barbara Amiel, writes strongly pro-Israel columns in several of his publications.

Black himself has taken the unusual step of writing to one of his own publications to decry “indefensible hatred for Israel.”

Taki Theodoracopulos, a columnist at Black’s Spectator magazine, wrote in early 2001, “The way to Uncle Sam’s heart runs through Tel Aviv and Israeli-occupied territory.”

Black responded in force.

“He expressed a hatred for Israel and a contempt for the United States and its political institutions that were irrational and an offense to civilized taste. In the process, I am afraid he uttered a blood libel on the Jewish people wherever they may be,” Black wrote.

“In both its venomous character and its unfathomable absurdity, this farrago of lies is almost worthy of Goebbels or the authors of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ “

“The Jews, according to Taki, have suborned the U.S. government, direct that country’s military like a docile attack dog, and glory in the murder of innocent or mischievous children. He presents the universal Jewish ethos as brutish, vulgar, grasping and cunningly wicked,” he added.

Black widened his diatribe to include large sections of the British press, including the BBC and Evening Standard, Guardian and Independent newspapers, plus Britain’s Foreign Office.

When shareholders of Hollinger International called in 2003 for an investigation into Black’s business dealings, he responded with a similar vehemence.

He said he was the victim of “corporate governance terrorists,” adding that anybody who didn’t like how he ran the company “can just take a hike,” the Guardian reported.

An internal investigation later found that Black had accepted $7.2 million in unauthorized payments. Black then said he would repay the money with interest.

Black denies any wrongdoing. But he has been available for very little comment on the affair, which looks likely to spell an end to his media empire.

Instead, he has been on a book tour, promoting his 1,200-page biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Analysts suggest that Black, who has been labeled a neo-conservative by his critics, may have been drawn to a particular interpretation of America’s longest-serving president: The book is called “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom.”

Recommended from JTA