And so, the general withdraws the last of his troops - or rather, leaves them to continue the fight under a new leader - and retreats to his manor house to live a life of leisure among the other lords and ladies of the court. Not the way one might have imagined Lord Conrad Black (as he no doubt soon will be) leaving the field, not to mention selling his regiment to Izzy Asper, but such are the vicissitudes of business. And despite Mr. Black's protestations in the past, the ending isn't really much of a surprise.
Mr. Black - the baron of bombast, the viscount of verbosity, the grand duke of grandiloquence - made much of his commitment to the newspaper industry after he bought control of the Southam chain, holding himself out as the champion of journalism in Canada, and then took up his sword in defence of truth and conservatism and started the National Post. But in the end, newspapers turned out to be a business just like any other, and a good deal is a good deal. When most of Hollinger's Canadian newspapers went up for sale last May, it seemed almost an offhand gesture - put on the block like a rancher would an old sway-backed mare he had no further use for.
In the end, Mr. Black sold only 50 per cent of the National Post - his national flagship, the only newspaper he created in 35 years as a media mogul - but it was clear that keeping a piece of it was more of a sentimental gesture than anything else. During the negotiations for Southam, Leonard Asper told Maclean's magazine, "There was a day or two where the Post was in 100 per cent, but a good night's sleep changed Conrad's mind. We settled on 50-50 because that [was]Conrad's baby." Now the baby has been adopted by the Asper family, media moguls of a somewhat different stripe.
Most of the smaller papers that Mr. Asper and CanWest weren't interested in were bought recently by a consortium of investors and will be managed by the Sifton family, whose newspaper experience goes back a couple of generations. That leaves Mr. Black with a handful of global flagships: The Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post (which is reportedly for sale) and the London Telegraph - the latter a fine old antique with a distinguished lineage. Just the thing to get you invited to the right parties and ensure that Lord Carrington or the Duke of Norfolk or Lord Asquith return your calls.
Mr. Black's enthusiasm for the British Empire is well known. The board of directors of Hollinger has been literally stuffed with nobility - including Lord Carrington, Lord Hanson, Lord Rothschild, Sir James Goldsmith and of course Baroness Thatcher. Even Mr. Black's home in Toronto was designed by nobility: noted architect Lord Llewelyn-Davies, according to Peter C. Newman. In his palatial London estate, the man who memorized 300-year-old British naval campaigns down to the name of each ship no doubt feels quite at home, surrounded by footstools that are older than the country of his birth.
And what is his legacy? What started with a tiny Quebec newspaper in 1966 became an impressive empire, with hundreds of newspapers in Canada and the United States, and such prominent worldwide titles as the venerable Telegraph, a newspaper Mr. Black won with just $69-million that is now likely worth well over $1-billion (U.S.). He also started a new Canadian national newspaper, but in doing so took a financial risk that some still question the wisdom of - one which probably hamstrung the rest of his empire by crippling its stock, which only began to climb after he started selling papers. Mr. Black said when he launched the Post that he wouldn't mind losing $150-million (Canadian) over the next eight years - he lost that much in just three years.
Selling most of Southam and the Post to the Aspers brought in $2.2-billion in cash, which nicely balanced the $2.4-billion (U.S.) in debt that Hollinger had racked up over the past few years. The papers Mr. Black is left with are not only prestigious but are making money, in some cases a lot of it. Last year, he told the New York Times he planned to "get into his little bulldozer every morning and plow back and forth over his gold coins" like Scrooge McDuck - before admitting he thought it was time "to get rid of the debt, to get a little bit of a cash box to work from, to enjoy life a little more."
And why not? It's been nothing but work, work, work almost from the day Mr. Black bought his first stock (General Motors) at the age of 8. As a child, he listened to the recorded speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even his favourite relaxation methods - organizing historically accurate portrayals of military campaigns with toy soldiers - sound like work (although perhaps it suits a man who was born on August 25th 1944, the day Paris was liberated from the Nazis).
Like Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson before him, Canada merely served as a springboard for Mr. Black to catapult himself into the ranks of the British nobility he has admired from afar ever since he was a child. Now that his Canadian assets have served their purpose, even his "baby" the National Post - not to mention his citizenship - is just an impediment, a nuisance almost. Better to cut it loose and move on.
E-mail Mathew Ingram at email@example.com
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