Black's humour and humanity shine through

Press baron did good for this industry by changing economic rules of the game

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Conrad Black you've been reading about - living the high life and cutting corporate corners at shareholder expense - isn't the person I know.

When he owned newspapers, including this one, he was a very good proprietor (as he would put it), who invested in the product, seldom interfered in the newsroom, and would never dream of telling you what to write.

And when he started a newspaper, the National Post, he changed the economic and editorial rules of the game in this country. He broke the Globe and Mail's monopoly as a national newspaper, created a platform for conservative ideas and, not least, paid good writers top dollar. For that alone, journalists in this country are permanently in his debt.

He also created shareholder value, buying the Southam papers for a song, then selling them at the top of the market. It wasn't Conrad Black who turned Hollinger Inc. into a penny stock, but the guys running it now.

None of these facts is particularly pertinent to his recent trial in Chicago, where he has been convicted on four counts of mail fraud and obstruction of justice, while winning acquittal on nine other charges, including two counts of tax fraud.

So while he still faces jail time if he loses his appeal, he has also won a significant, if partial, victory. The dismissal of the tax charges means he won't be hounded by revenuers in the U.S. and Canada. As for the so-called lifestyle charges, and Black was very much on trial for his lifestyle, a jury of ordinary men and women threw them out.

And while he must endure the humbling proceeding of a bail hearing tomorrow, he has already been deeply humbled, as in how the mighty have fallen. The trial has cost him millions, and he's already lost his power, which he valued much more than money. What matters most to him is his reputation, which should be the best guarantee to the judge that he won't skip bail.

Is Black the author of his own misfortune? Well, a public company can't be run like a private one, not where the rules of corporate governance are concerned, particularly in the United States and especially in the post-Enron era. In hindsight, Black might have saved himself a lot of trouble by not listing on the New York Stock Exchange in the first place.

Does he have only his own arrogance to blame for his plight? While it's true he doesn't do humility very well, his personality has nothing to do with the formidable powers of the state that have been arrayed against him. In seeking to portray Black as a villain, the prosecution transformed him into an unlikely underdog.

It's hard to say what lies ahead for Black in his appeal, and what kind of sentence the judge has in mind for him.

Here's what I know about him, as a friendly acquaintance of many years: His humanity and humour, neither of which has been much in evidence in the Chicago media circus, shine through.

Two anecdotes of a mutual friend will illustrate, and if Nick Auf der Maur were here, he would tell the first one himself.

When Nick was struck with cancer in 1996, he had to suspend his column during his treatments, and since he was a freelancer here with no benefits, he would be losing his only source of income at a time when he needed it most. Conrad very quietly sent word he should be paid for the duration of his illness.

Then when Nick died in 1998 and we were putting together what became the bestselling book of his columns and tributes from friends, Conrad was delighted that we asked him to contribute. He made the deadline, stayed within the word limit, and in one of the best pieces in the book, told stories of Nick at his own expense.

Since then, I've dealt with Black on magazine excerpts from his massive biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. No author in my experience has ever been more helpful or courteous. In the Roosevelt excerpt on Pearl Harbor Day, he even pointed out, for the purposes of the photo cutline, why FDR was wearing a black arm patch (his mother had recently died). For the Nixon excerpt on the Kennedy-Nixon debates, in the current issue of Policy Options, he took time from the trial to read and approve the edit.

As for the sense of humour, it's dry, and admittedly an acquired taste. When he was in Washington in 1988 for a White House dinner for Brian Mulroney, I ran into him in the lobby of the Madison hotel. He explained why he had decided not to invest with Pierre Peladeau in a new Montreal tabloid, the Daily News.

"I figured if I'm going to be a press baron," he said, "I should have controlling interest."

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