White collar theft is relatively unexciting as news stories go, but yesterday’s verdict from a Chicago courtroom fosters a special sort of antipathy toward the insufferable Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour. It’s not so much the US$60 million the dark Lord allegedly helped misappropriate, or how calling a CBC journalist a slut isn’t particularly appropriate conduct for a Lady of faux nobility—it’s that following years of jaw-dropping hubris which left a trail of enemies from Jean Chrétien to Rupert Murdoch, a cocky plutocrat racked up a karmic debt much bigger than his bank account.
The Rise of Baron Black
Conrad Black developed a shrewd business acumen from an early age. After being expelled from Upper Canada College for selling stolen exam papers, he bounced around from school to school, eventually completing a law degree and a Master of Arts and landing a mentorship with Canadian business moguls John “Bud” McDougald and E. P. Taylor. McDougald was the chair of the Toronto-based Argus Corporation, founded by Taylor—a massive holding company that included Dominion grocery stores, farm equipment manufacturer Massey Ferguson and Hollinger Mines, among other major brands. When McDougald died in 1978, the 34-year-old Black convinced McDougald’s widow to surrender a controlling interest in Argus, giving him voting control over the company. Black soon divested most of the company’s assets and turned Hollinger Mines into a holding company, Hollinger Inc., which eventually became the only element run by Argus.
Hollinger, headquartered at 10 Toronto Street, was operated by Black’s personal holding corporation, Ravelston, which became the parent of prestigious newspapers like London’s Daily Telegraph, The Jerusalem Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and a large number of community newspapers. Hollinger aquired Canadian newspaper empire Southam in 1998, including the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, bringing Hollinger’s control to more than 400 newspapers.
Bothered with what he felt was a liberal, left-wing media bias in Canada, Black bought Sun Media’s Financial Post in 1998 and launched Southam’s flagship newspaper, the National Post, which was Canada’s second national daily after the Globe and Mail. The Globe was the most conservative mainstream paper at the time, and the introduction of the National Post into the national landscape was a shot across the bow. The Globe soon canned longtime editor William Thorsell (now director and CEO of the ROM), who likened Conrad Black to the Captain of a Romulan ship uncloaking near the Enterprise. New editors from London’s notorious Fleet Street were brought in who began poaching staff right and left from the Post, infuriating Black.
With the National Post hemorrhaging money and Hollinger acquiring significantly increasing debt, Southam and the Post were sold to CanWest through two deals in 2000 and 2001. CanWest Global, owned by Winnipeg’s Israel “Izzy” Asper, attempted to abandon Black’s right-wing ideology yet maintain much of its conservative readership despite close ties Asper had to the Liberal Party.
Black’s union to Joanna Hirshon, which produced his three children, collapsed in 1992, and in that same year, he became the fourth husband of popular and controversial journalist Barbara Amiel. The outspoken Amiel wasn’t born into money as Black was, which is often credited as a major factor in her icy toughness. She is best known for a 27-year stint writing her often cantankerous column for Maclean’s, but was also an on-camera television journalist for CBC, CTV and TVOntario. Amiel became the first female editor of a major daily Canadian newspaper in 1983 when she assumed the role at the Toronto Sun, which lauded her as “right-wing and right on.”
Soon after moving to London to write for The Times, new husband Conrad Black furnished a position for her at his Daily Telegraph and appointed her Vice-President, Editorial of Hollinger. Empowered, Amiel raised hackles not only through her controversial columns on Israel, homosexuality and welfare mothers, but also via her very public lifestyle as a moneyed socialite (with an increasingly British accent). The narcissistic power couple rapidly plowed through a long list of extravagances, from a US$530,000 holiday in French Polynesia to homes in London, New York and Palm Beach and the lease of two private jets.
The recent trial brought many of these extravagances to light—most notoriously, a US$63,000 60th birthday party for Amiel in New York that was attended by Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, cosmetics heir Donald Lauder, Vogue editor Anna Wintour and New York Daily News baron Mort Zuckerman. Guests drank their way through US$14,000 of wine and champagne, and US$43,000 of the party’s cost was charged back to Hollinger as a business expense. An appropriate event for the woman who famously boasted how her “extravagance knows no bounds,” but maddening to the staff of Hollinger’s newspapers, many of whom were facing layoffs and pay freezes.
From Steerage to Peerage
With Black and Amiel’s increasing obsession with status, hating the couple practically became a sport following Black’s renunciation of his Canadian citizenship in 2001 in order to accept a vanity appointment in Britain’s House of Lords. Calling his Canadian citizenship “an impediment,” Black found himself under the wrath of former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who gleefully invoked the obscure Nickle Resolution, which forbade Canadian citizens from accepting British titles of privilege. Livid, Black renounced his citizenship and accused Chrétien for singling him out due to the National Post’s criticism of the Liberal government.
Losing a lawsuit with Chrétien over the Nickle Resolution, Black was granted a British life peerage as Baron Black of Crossharbour, sitting in the House of Lords as a member of the British Conservative Party. In a wry attempt at humility when asked about interest in his public persona, Black replied, “I have largely attributed it to the fact that Canada is not that interesting a place rather than that I’m so interesting a person.”
Honour Among Thieves
Near the end of 2003, Hollinger launched an internal inquiry over questionable bonuses paid to Black and two of his top lieutenants, which forced his resignation two months later. Hollinger launched a $200 million lawsuit against Black and his holding companies, and almost a year later, the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission filed criminal fraud lawsuits against Black and his compatriots, resulting in thirteen charges laid against him. The accusations demonstrated an alleged system of misappropriation in the form of tax-free “no compete” sham bonuses, which ultimately paid Black (and some of his executives) a substantial fee not to compete with himself.
One of the most serious charges Black faced was obstruction of justice. A damning video was produced from Hollinger security cameras that showed Black illegally removing thirteen boxes of documents in May of 2005. Black said they carried personal belongings he was retrieving after an order from Hollinger to vacate, but returned the boxes days later and claimed no contents had been removed. At one point during the video, Black is captured pointing directly at the security camera.
Facing multiple years in jail at the hands of an American court, Lord Black of Crossharbour came crawling back to Canada, begging for his citizenship and the chance to be tried for the charges in Canadian courts, which would allow for much sooner parole and a potentially more lenient sentence. With the government unwilling to do him any favours after publicly and definitively renouncing his citizenship, Black technically remained a foreigner facing criminal charges in another country. Yesterday’s conviction of those criminal charges could mean that Black will be entirely inadmissible at the border.
If there was one primary characteristic displayed by Lord and Lady Macbeth Black during the trial, it was their vitriolic contempt. They almost seemed irritated that a court would have the gall to take on such a powerful man, who believed that since Hollinger was his company, he could do with it whatever he pleased. Black was photographed flipping the bird to press photographers, compared the prosecution to Nazis and asserted that he was a victim of corporate “terrorists” attempting to wrest control. In a striking lapse of judgment, Amiel turned to two journalists, spitting “you are all vermin,” and as the doors closed in her elevator, called CBC television Melanie Glanz a “slut” as Black’s daughter giggled beside her.
With lawsuits and criminal charges flying, Amiel surrendered her position at Hollinger and the Daily Telegraph and resumed her column at Maclean’s, penning a thinly-veiled criticism of the Michael Jackson trial that slammed overzealous prosecutors and the cult of celebrity she significantly benefited from. Last November, with her public image being raked over the coals, she wrote a column dripping with subtext about the persecution of Marie Antoinette.
Black’s lawyers acknowledged his arrogance and belligerence to the court, claiming that assholery was not a basis of conviction. They even pleaded for the court to disallow anecdotes about loose-cannon Amiel, claiming that her “lightning rod” effect would unfairly influence the jury. The defense also argued that Black wouldn’t be treated fairly by a jury since he was immensely wealthy and they were not.
In the end, Black would be acquitted of nine charges, but found guilty on three charges of criminal mail fraud, and the icing on the cake: obstruction of justice. He faces a US$1 million fine and a maximum 30 years in prison. His lawyer says Black will appeal.
The last few years have turned the stories of Lord and Lady Black into a caricature of hubris and excess, yet they’ve also seemingly reinforced the meshing of the two personalities as a unit—the powerful capo di tutti capi and his dangerous, whip-smart consigliere. The Blacks’ repulsive notion that their money could buy nobility, however, betrayed shallow roots and subjugated their obvious brilliance. With Black probably headed for the clink and his wife’s social circle in tatters, the couple now enjoys gleeful disgust at the hands of the plebeian common they so transparently detested.
There’s no denying that Conrad Black is a business genius, but he is also a hoodlum whose megalomania still encourages the dysfunctional belief that no wrongdoing occurred. His frigid stare is legendary, but from now on, Black’s hooded eyes will be known as those of a convicted swindler. Today, his tale is that of an embarrassment of riches, but minus the riches and plus a whole lot of schadenfreude.
Photo illustration and Hollinger photo by Marc Lostracco. Amiel photo via Maclean’s; peerage portrait by Brian Smith.