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The Book That Black Hates

What prompted Conrad to sue Tom Bower? "Lies."

By Charles Campbell 27 Mar 2007 |

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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'No safety net for the rich'
  • Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge
  • Tom Bower
  • HarperCollins (2006)

What exactly did Tom Bower write that made Conrad Black sue him last month in a Toronto court for $11 million? What did Black find to be "vindictive, high-handed, contemptuous, sadistic" and "pathologically mendacious"? What would motivate Black to publicly claim his wife Barbara is not "grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill and a harridan"?

In the avalanche of coverage of the opening of Black's Chicago trial for fraud, money laundering and racketeering, where Tom Bower has taken a front-row seat, this is what I really want to know.

As would be expected, Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge is a pretty thorough overview of accusations that will be considered during the trial. But there's quite a bit more besides -- an awful lot, for example, about that woman who enlivened the trial's otherwise disappointing opening day on March 19 by calling a CBC reporter a "slut" and journalists "vermin."

Many Canadians are already dully aware, and some love to be reminded, that Barbara Amiel Black is a former pothead Marxist university student from a poor Jewish family who became a sexually aggressive social-climbing pundit apologist for the rich and repeatedly fulfilled her ambition to "marry up." Not a "slut" necessarily, nor by her precise definition "vermin." But a woman of fascinating ambitions and contradictions.

Bower fairly horsewhips Barbara Amiel Black with a litany of alleged rudenesses and extravagances, and being British, reminds us ad nauseam that she has enormous breasts. His version of Barbara Amiel Black is a hyper-adenoidal Lady Macbeth, stoking Conrad's already raging belly-fire of craven ambition. Bower's couple appears fully worthy of such media monikers as "Lord Con and Lady Barbarella" or "Mr. Money and Attila the Honey."

Bower's Black is pretty much as he's being portrayed in Chicago by the prosecution -- a conniving opportunist with a penchant for rococo extravagance (particularly when he opens his mouth), a "proprietor" who cultivated Hollinger International directors such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle as his pals but failed to ensure they clearly understood how the company was being run, a screw-you guy who had a picture of Al Capone on a boardroom wall.

'Lies, lies, lies'

Black, of course, disagrees, in just about every respect. After the first excerpt from the book appeared in October in Britain's Sunday Times, under the headline "Conrad the Barbarian," he responded with a screed -- "Lies, lies, lies" -- in the Daily Telegraph, the paper he owned until those who misunderstood him carelessly released the regulatory Rottweilers. "Lies, lies, lies" disputes a wide array of Bower's assertions about Black's youth and family -- from the statement his father was fired from Argus to the colour of the family car's upholstery -- but Black reserves his greatest disdain for the attacks on Barbara. "His key-hole, smut-mongering side-piece portrayal of my wife as a man-eating sex maniac prior to her marriage to me is disgusting."

Dancing on the Edge's 438 pages contain a lot of assertions the Blacks would rather not see in print. Beyond the issue of falsehoods, however, it's hard to know where exactly the line might be drawn by a couple that attended a British costume ball dressed as Marie Antoinette and Cardinal Richelieu.

The book chronicles Conrad's expulsion from Upper Canada College for stealing and selling exams (for which he makes no apology), proceeds through his takeover of the Argus Corporation (with the help of two gullible widows), then details the company's often bloody conversion from a conglomerate into a newspaper company (the dubious effort to exploit the Dominion Stores employee pension fund surplus, the abandonment of the historic Massey Ferguson corporation).

Dancing on the Edge shows what Conrad learned from the Argus model: how to control a business without really owning it and how to move assets around to personally enrich yourself. Black inherited from Argus a structure in which a private company controlled voting shares in a public one, and the private company could be used to hide behaviour that regulators might not tolerate within a public entity. Thus Ravelston and Hollinger Inc., private companies controlled by Black and his Vancouver-based partner David Radler, were able to extract money from Hollinger International, a public newspaper company in which they had minority interest.

In short, what's before the courts in Chicago are the allegations that Black and Radler received through those private companies non-compete fees, management fees and other payments from Hollinger International that were excessive and violated U.S. disclosure rules, that Black unreasonably billed Hollinger Inc. for large personal expenses, and that a new company created by Black and Radler -- Horizon Publications -- violated U.S. securities law when it bought newspapers from Hollinger, at artificially low prices, without disclosing the obvious conflicts of interest.

Hollinger International's own "corporate kleptocracy" internal report put it this way: "Not once or twice, but on dozens of occasions Hollinger was victimized by its controlling shareholders as they transferred to themselves and their affiliates more than $400 million in the last seven years. The aggregate cash taken by Hollinger's former CEO Conrad M. Black and its former COO F. David Radler and their associates represented 95.2 per cent of Hollinger's entire adjusted net income during 1997-2003."

Just a rube from Ontario?

The book details the background, and is obliquely an indictment of Canadian business regulation, as Black finds the rules of behaviour in England and the United States uncomfortably restricting. As Bower puts it, with typical plodding excess, "Reared in that wild-west monoculture, the aspiring tycoon did not understand that the stakes and rules for playing in the United States were different from those in his own crude backwater."

But just when Bower's generalization makes you want to put him in one of those "wild-west monoculture" stockades, Conrad's lawyers start saying similar things. Black's defence seems to be that he's just an inattentive dreamer who is being grossly violated by Yankee regulatory zealots emboldened by wacko notions about shareholder rights, and had no idea what his treacherous Vancouver-based partner David Radler and their careless lawyers were doing. In other words: "I didn't know any better. It was all Radler's fault. He admits he's guilty. I'm from Ontario."

It seems a bit much from a businessman who once told Peter Newman that he is "basically more Nietzschean than Hegelian."

Much of Bower's reporting, such as the quote above, is borrowed from the work of others. He acknowledges Peter Newman's The Establishment Man and Jacquie McNish and Stewart Sinclair's Wrong Way: The Fall of Conrad Black. He leans heavily on a large number of British media reports, as well as Hollinger's own internal investigation and documents from the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission. He did do 150-odd interviews, and salts the story with much enlivening detail. The footnotes are extensive. Yet the book still begs for more attribution than Bower offers, and its accounts often feel untrustworthy.

Bower does provide a welcome recapitulation of some fascinating specifics on the world of high (and low) finance. For British Columbians in particular, there's the bizarre manipulation of two papers in Kelowna by Radler (known to those who view him as cold and hard, Bower notes, as the Refrigerator). In 1999, when the success of Hollinger's Capital News prompted the Thomson Corporation to sell the rival Kelowna Daily Courier, Black and Radler's Horizon picked it up for $11 million US. Paul Winkler, the publisher who had made the Capital News successful, was then told he would have to print the Courier if its printers went on strike. Unaware that his bosses were also the Courier's new owners, he objected, asked what was afoot, and was fired. After Winkler was sacked, the Capital News was sold to a group that included the stepfather of Horizon's frontman for $5.4 million US, a price Winkler figured was about one third of its true worth. Two years later, it was sold again for $13.7 million US.

Bower gives the story more space than it received in any B.C. newspaper you could name. The Vancouver Sun, for example, covered the story briefly in 2004, two years after Winkler won a wrongful dismissal suit in a B.C. court, when Black and Radler's enterprises were in tatters. All of which is hardly surprising, given that one important unspoken rule of contemporary Canadian journalistic behavior is that the vermin shall not shit in their owners' nests. Bower at least comes from the British tradition, where papers are always at each other's throats.

The British tradition, unfortunately, also produces journalism where the writers presume to know more than they possibly can. Thus Bower treats us to this observation about Barbara: "The bride was a vulnerable woman, desperate to fulfil her lovers' fantasies. Like the cosmetics she applied every morning, she relied on her man's image to protect herself." Then there's this on Conrad: "Black the schoolboy imagined himself to be an unacknowledged genius entitled to break the law." Bower supports the latter assertion with a quote from Black describing Upper Canada College: "It was an awful system whose odiousness was compounded by banality and pretension."

There are several objectionable things here. The first is Bower's remarkably dreary writing. The second is the patronizing description of Amiel. The third is his pretense that a journalist can have such pat psychological insight, particularly when he has never even interviewed his subjects. Finally, I once went to St. George's, a low-rent Vancouver version of Upper Canada College, and the classmates who rebelled against that institution's perverse authority were my heroes. If the fates had conspired years ago to put Black, Bower and myself together in an empty schoolyard, I might well have been with Conrad.

A 'bitch,' with and without the money

When Bower simply sifts through the public record for ironic anecdotes and quotations, and leaves them unadorned, he is generally on firmer ground. Black and Amiel certainly provide a trove of opportunity.

"I have been a bitch all my life and did not need the authority of money to be one," Amiel once declared on BBC Radio Four.

After Leona Helmsley's 1989 conviction for tax evasion, Amiel defended her. "Even after you've paid £38 million in taxes, as she did, the impulse to withhold the last £678,000 cannot be alien to any of us," she wrote. "Trying to arouse public sympathy for rich people denied justice," she added, "particularly a rude, flamboyant, rich Jew such as Mrs. Helmsley, is a thankless task."

Bower also deftly picks apart the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in some of Amiel's more serious political reporting, but he's not above a little hypocrisy himself. He derisively draws attention to Amiel's description of Germaine Greer's "great hobbit feet," yet later claims with rather less panache that Amiel wears stilettos to disguise the size of her own. Please understand here that I'm not trying to arouse public sympathy for a rude, flamboyant, rich person. I'm just noting a few ironies.

Bower's attention to the ironies of Black's past remarks can be quite entertaining. "There is not, and should not be, any safety net for the rich," he quotes Black as saying during his early Argus days. And there's this: "I'm a fatalist. I believe that people's destinies are always more interesting than their day-to-day reactions." Bower also claims the following as Black's description of fellow media tycoon Robert Maxwell, after Maxwell's suicide: "I know he was a crook, but he was not an uninteresting character as well. He had his moments."

The Canadian newspaper 'chore'

Some Black quotations are more straightforward. "Canadian newspapers are boring, reading them is a chore," Black is said to have declared, prior to the creation of the National Post. Bower acknowledges that the Post was deemed a creative if not a financial success, but it's a grudging acknowledgement. There's little sense in the book that Black made some among his newspapers better. More overtly right wing, sure, but also more provocative, better looking, and better written. Although Black's attention wandered and he didn't finish his projects -- Amiel is even quoted as saying she wished Black had properly fixed his other major Canadian papers before he launched the Post -- he was certainly a more positive influence on Canadian media than his successors from the Asper family have been.

Again, I'm hardly trying to arouse public sympathy here. Hey, I worked at the Vancouver Sun when Black ran it, and the whipsaw effect of his ownership was not always pleasant or edifying. But Black hired some talented editors who were game for a fight, even with him, as his support for the National Post's Ken Whyte -- the best right-wing newspaper editor in this country -- clearly showed. Black was a businessman, sure, but he's an interesting character, and he had his moments.

We'll see soon enough whether the U.S. courts think he's a crook. What I know now, however, is that Black's business style is hardly uncommon in the corporate world. I wonder what the difference is between Black's alleged misdeeds and, say, the $210 million golden parachute recently claimed by recently deposed Home Depot executive Robert L. Nardelli. That, too, might have become shareholders' money.

I also know that if Black persists in his legal action against Bower, I wouldn't bet against him. After all, as Bower himself notes, Black once sued and won an apology from a writer who said simply that Black believed greed and ego added to the sum of human misery.

First, however, Black has to win in Chicago. And against a team led by Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor who just rattled the White House by convicting 'Scooter' Libby, the odds may not be so much in his favour.