The excesses of Lord Black, former proprietor of the Telegraph Group, which owns this magazine, are mind-boggling. Of course they have not yet been proven in a court of law, and Lord Black continues to deny the allegations in his characteristically orotund language. But the author of the 500-page report condemning Lord Black is Richard Breeden, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in America, and his colleagues are equally well respected and disinterested people. Moreover, they have certainly provided chapter and verse to a level of detail that must — or should — be mortifying to Lord Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel. Lord Black may continue to protest his innocence, but until he is able to prove otherwise the rest of the world will assume that a truly stupendous heist has been committed, one that bears comparison with the activities of the late Robert Maxwell.
The report alleges that ‘the aggregate cash taken by Hollinger’s former chief executive officer, Conrad M. Black, and its former chief operating officer, F. David Radler, and their associates, represented 95.2 per cent of Hollinger’s entire adjusted net income during 1997–2003’. Wow! (Hollinger International directly controlled the Telegraph Group until it recently sold it to the Barclay brothers.) To trouser 95 per cent of a company’s profits is not just an example of monumental greed but also an act of madness. For how could they think that they would continue to get away with it? This is what strikes me most about this report, if it is true: the utter insanity of Lord and Lady Black. They resemble a couple of cat burglars who recklessly leave a trail of clues wherever their escapades take them, partly because they hold the forces of law and order in such low esteem, and also because they truly believe themselves to be superior people occupying a different moral realm to the rest of us.
And so the list of what the report calls ‘aggressive looting’ is relentless — not one or two acts of carefully calculated and cunningly executed deception, but a never-ending avalanche of brazen appropriation. A Hollinger apartment in New York acquired at a rigged price; a holiday taken in Bora Bora with the company Gulfstream at a cost of $530,000; a Rolls-Royce refurbished for $90,000 at Hollinger’s expense; a string of private parties and dinners charged to the company; the purchase of opera tickets, stereo equipment and even a leather briefcase paid for by Hollinger. The big and the small, the sublime and the ridiculous — all went on the company tab. ‘Black’s expenses practices,’ says the report, ‘evidenced his attitude that there was no need to distinguish what belonged to the company and what belonged to Black. In Hollinger’s world everything belonged to Black.’
When I joined the Daily Telegraph in 1978, Michael Hartwell, its proprietor, would turn up in a battered Mini, and Bill Deedes, its editor, would wait at 10 o’clock in the evening for a No. 14 bus to take him to Charing Cross. I am sure that Lord Hartwell lived very well, and his elder brother, Lord Camrose, even better, but they did so within the income they drew from the newspaper. The Blacks — and perhaps Lady Black in particular — were in love with conspicuous consumption. They needed to live like the richest of American billionaires, and the income they derived legitimately from Hollinger, though very large, appears not to have been enough for them to do this. For all his professed love of Britain, Lord Black emerges as a strikingly un-English figure. I do not mean that there are no rich English crooks, but they tend, particularly if they aspire to social respectability as Lord Black did, to understand the value of restraint. Lord Black also latterly turned the Daily Telegraph — again partly under the influence of his wife? — into a raucous neoconservative organ which often sounded as though it had been edited in the United States.
Let’s hope that the allegations will turn out to be untrue. I do not say this out of any particular affection for Lord Black, but for the Daily Telegraph. I hate to see my old newspaper — the paper of English rectitude and honour — associated with a scandal of this sort. Perhaps in some eyes the Sunday Telegraph or even The Spectator will be tarnished, but the Daily Telegraph is the proud battleship of the fleet. The paper did well on Wednesday, offering the fullest account of any title of the Breeden report. Clearly there is going to be no attempt to hush up the sins of the past. But I sense that some, perhaps many, Telegraph readers are confused, even distressed, when they hear that the man who until the day before yesterday was the newspaper’s very public proprietor is being accused by reputable authorities of looting. I fear that the newspaper may suffer unless or until an explanation is offered, and some atonement made.
It must quite soon say something which shows that it understands the shock some readers may have suffered. Of course Conrad Black was not a bad proprietor; in some respects he was a very good one. But if it is established that he was guilty on the scale of Robert Maxwell, the Daily Telegraph cannot simply sail on regardless as though nothing has happened. Its readers may wonder, for example, how it was that the paper’s own senior executives — and in particular Dan Colson, its chief executive and a close and old friend of Lord Black — could have remained oblivious to the systematic looting which the Breeden report alleges. No doubt there is a very good explanation, but one needs to be offered. If the secretary of an ancient and distinguished London club were discovered to have fiddled the books for his own advantage, its members would naturally hope for some acknowledgment of error before normal service were resumed. So it is for the Daily Telegraph, which, though it is a precious national institution much bigger than its passing proprietors and editors, can nonetheless be damaged by them. With new owners, not to mention a pristine new chief executive, the Daily Telegraph is in a perfect position to make amends.
The Times did not give the Breeden report quite as much space as one might have expected, though I doubt this was because its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, feels any great sorrow for Lord Black. In its account on page three (I mean the tabloid, which is delivered to me regardless of my preference for the broadsheet), there was a gloss of the sort that enrages traditional Times readers. This is what the story said: ‘Corporate kleptocracy — from the Greek for rule by theft — was the special investigative committee’s verdict ...[on] Lord Black.’ Why does the paper insist on addressing us as though we were a particularly dim class of seven-year-olds?