“I quickly developed alliances with the Mafia people, then the Cubans. I was friendly with the ‘good ol’ boys’ and the African-Americans. They all understood I had fought the system, and I do believe I earned their respect for that.” So said Conrad Black—Lord Black—in a Vanity Fair interview in August, 2011. Whatever you think of Black, one word for that quote (and there were many other choice pickings in the article) might be “wow”.
Lord Black was born Conrad Moffat Black, on August 25, 1944. Born a Canadian, he renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 in order to thwart the efforts of then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to prevent him from accepting the lordship. Bizarre; but true. Black was born in Montreal, Canada to parents George Montegu Black II (president of the international company, Canadian Breweries Limited), and Jean Elizabeth Riley (her father founded the Great-West Life Assurance Company). Black’s current home is in Toronto, Canada—or I should say, it’s the home he returned to on being released from prison. Conrad has been married twice. His first wife, Joanna Hishon, separated from Black in 1992, with the divorce being finalized in 1992. His current wife is Lady Black—Barbara Amiel—who is a well-known Canadian broadcaster.
Black was born into a wealthy family, but unlike his siblings, he excelled in financial matters whereas they excelled in sports. Of his older brother, Montegu, he once said he was “one of the greatest natural athletes I have known.” Black was a wordsmith, and loved playing word games with his father. His post-secondary education took place at Carleton University, Université Laval (LL.L.), and McGill University.
Grant Schuyler—poet, thinker, and letter carrier who lives in Toronto—wrote an excellent and far-ranging essay on Black. One of the things he pointed about the man had to do with his early education. Black didn’t fare too well at either Upper Canada College (he was expelled), or at Port Hope’s Trinity College School (he was asked to leave). The third time must have been the charm, however, as Schuyler related: “From a third exclusive private secondary school, Thornton Hall in Toronto, designed to nurture and correct difficult but brilliant wealthy students, Conrad managed to graduate with apparently mediocre grades in 1962.” From humble beginnings, one might say!
The career of Lord Black is extensive, lengthy, and multifaceted; so much so, that it would probably take several articles to cover all of his business accomplishments in a thorough manner. In his heyday, he was considered the third-largest newspaper magnate in the world. He’s been a columnist and a publisher, and continues to be a writer for the National Post. He contributes his writing talents to many other publications including The Huffington Post and The American Spectator. He has written two memoirs, and also several biographies (including one of Nixon, and another of Roosevelt). Among the many quite remarkable corporate milestones involving Black, the following:
- In 1976 on his father’s death, he received shares in Ravelston Corporation (he and his brother). This company had voting control of Argus Corporation, and in 1978 Black spent $30 million to take control of Ravelston (hence, of Argus).
- Director of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
- Black spent 30 million pounds in 1985 to gain control of the Telegraph Group. This was his first foray into owning a publishing firm in Britain.
- In 1990, he purchased The Jerusalem Post, and by that time, Black’s companies ran over 400 newspaper titles in North America.
- Two years later, in 1992, Black’s Hollinger International, group bought a large stake in Southam (newspaper chain), and two years after that, he acquired the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Hollinger launched the National Post (a Toronto-based paper) in 1998.
- Hollinger sold, between 1999 and 2001, several newspapers, including thirteen major Canadian papers, 126 community papers, internet properties, and eventually, the National Post itself (this was sold to CanWest). This brought the company hundreds of millions of dollars.
- In time, because of Black’s legal woes (which included his eventual incarceration), Hollinger was dismantled. Black was forced out, and the company’s assets were sold off at prices much lower than they were worth.
Tighter security regulations in the United States eventually caught up with Lord Black. Beginning in 2004, Black was the subject of a very public and extensive investigation and prosecution for some of the deals brokered by him dating back to 2000, and perhaps before that. In 2007, he was convicted of three counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. Though he steadfastly maintained his innocence, even on release from prison, he was initially sentenced to 6½ years. In addition, he was fined $6.1 million dollars for violating U.S. securities laws. Later on, two of the charges were overturned. In 2011, he was resentenced on the remaining count of mail fraud and on one count of obstruction of justice. This meant that due to time served, and the overturning of other charges, Conrad Black was released from prison in May, 2012.
Not all of Black’s story, however, is about misdealing’s of corporate wealth…
On April 20, 1990, Conrad Black was awarded the Order of Canada. This award was invested on October 24th of that same year. This is a prestigious award, and among the reasons Black was considered for it were that he was “a man of diverse achievements within the realms of Canadian commerce, education, literature and the arts.” Because of his incarceration, the Order of Canada Black cherished so much may yet be revoked by the Government of Canada. In the latter half of 2012, there was much in the news about Black’s struggles to retain this award. There were even petitions from other Canadians, demanding the government revoke it. Black, whether because of ego or on matters of principle, tried to secure a personal appeal in a bid to keep his Order of Canada. This would have been a highly unusual request if granted: it wasn’t. The Order of Canada advisory council refused to allow him to make an oral appeal. He had been granted the chance to appeal in writing, as would anyone, and that’s as far as the matter went. It’s of interest to know the award has only been successfully revoked four times in its history (it’s been bestowed over 6,000 times).
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to make Black a member of the House of Lords, well, you can predict Black’s response: he wanted that. Whether due to his and his many publications’ criticism of the then Liberal Canadian government, with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in charge, or for some other reason, the government of the day invoked a rarely-used statute called the Nickle Resolution, which was originally designed to prevent Canadian citizens from receiving foreign honours. It wasn’t a law, but Chrétien somehow made it stick. For a time, Black was prevented from accepting what he felt to be his rightful place in Britain’s House of Lords. Black of course sued, and he launched a relentless attack on the government in the National Post and other papers he owned. When none of that worked, he renounced his Canadian citizenship. In the fall of 2001, he took his place as The Lord Black of Crossharbour, alongside Henry Kissinger and Lady Margaret Thatcher. (He had become a British citizen a couple of years earlier, thus for a time holding dual-citizenship.)
Black has contributed much to Canada, and though in 2012 was granted only temporary status to live in his Toronto home, he is considered to be a Canadian luminary. Up until his incarceration, he was also a great admirer of the United States as well. He’s a prize-winning journalist, a great writer, and a renowned historian. While there can be no doubt of his trial, conviction, and time served in jail, there is room for doubt on how one judges this former media mogul. Reviled and considered bourgeois by some, or sympathized with and considered having taken a “nightmarish trek through America’s justice system” by others, Black will no doubt remain a person of high interest and impact through the rest of his life.