Alex Massie

Let Us Now Praise...Conrad Black

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As a general rule, newspapers are owned by ogres. As with the Presidency of the United States, desiring the office or, in this instance, the title, should be considered enough to disqualify anyone from consideration. Nevertheless, it matters what kind of ogre it is. There's a chasm between a Richard Desmond (Express) or a Sam Zell (Tribune Company) and a Rupert Murdoch (half the English-speaking world).

Conrad Black, bless him, is in the latter camp. A newspaper proprietor of the proper, old-fashioned brutish school. That is, one who likes newspapers while having a suitably low opinion of both journalism and journalists. He rightly says, in this review of three books about American papers, that journalists' favourite subjects are themselves and implies, I think, and rightly so that the public are unimpressed by the endless caterwauling over the future fate of all these inky wretches.

Black's disgrace and subsequent imprisonment appears to have liberated the old Canuck warhorse. This piece is full of splendid things (and equally stuffed, as is any proprietor's right, with dubious judgements and questionable prejudices), not least this analysis of Murdoch:

Murdoch, because he is probably the most successful media owner in history (so international, innovative and daring) and has, when he can be loosened up to part with them, a considerable store of astute and mordant aperçus, should be a bottomless storehouse of interest. But he is generally not overly forthcoming, rather monosyllabic, an enigma whose banter is nondescript bourgeois filler delivered in a mid-Pacific accent. His idea of humor is pretty coarse, in the Australian manner, without being very original, or very funny.

Murdoch has no discernible attachments to anyone or anything except the formidable company he has built. His periodic foraging trips for media attention (the oddly hoped-for story where he’s made to seem human) usually lead to hilarious fiascoes such as the journalist Michael Wolff’s effort at comradely biography combined with sophomoric mind reading [...] Murdoch’s centenarian mother was “okay” (about as affectionate as it gets with Rupert); no business associate lasts long [...] Save for Ronald Reagan, he turned on every politician he ever supported in every country where he has operated; he discarded every loyal lieutenant, two wives and countless friendly acquaintances, as if he were changing his socks. Murdoch is a great white shark, who mumbles and furrows his brow compulsively, asks questions and listens, and occasionally breaks loose and has pictures taken of himself dressed in groovy black, pushing a baby stroller through Greenwich Village, or has stories written about his supposedly popish-leaning religiosity, published as humanizing touches, much like his orange-dyed hair, in the Sumner Redstone style.

Certainly Murdoch is interesting as a phenomenon if not as a person; a man who is airtight in his ruthlessness, unlimited in his ambition, with the iron nerves to have bet the company again and again. And although he has had some narrow escapes, he always emerges in fighting form. That story is fascinating, but he has the self-confidence never to try to impress people, is monotonous as a public speaker and unfathomable as a personality in regular conversation. [...]

 I have long thought that his social philosophy was contained in his cartoon show, The Simpsons: all politicians and public officials are crooks, and the masses are a vast lumpen proletariat of deluded and exploitable blowhards. Almost all studies of Murdoch, including the reflections on him in Sarah Ellison’s book War at the Wall Street Journal on his takeover of the paper, where she was a reporter, are mosquito explorations around his shins, which is all he cares to reveal.

The same moral-journalist-as-overhyped-pseudocelebrity-with-little-real-talent is seen over and over again—including at the Washington Post. With commendable candor, Mr. Kindred declares himself in his first sentence “a hopeless romantic about newspapers.” He is certainly entitled to that, but from my more than forty years in the business, in six countries as an owner and scores of others as publisher-traveler (doing my miniature New York Times role of calling on local heads of government and foreign ministers), I am long cured of any such romance. I think that most journalists, like most people, are pleasant enough to meet, but few can write properly, few report thoroughly, many are frustrated at being chroniclers rather than the persons whose deeds and words are reported. As a group, they often claim to be a craft, if not a learned profession, but generally act like an industrial trade union. Mr. Kindred thinks they have great loyalty to the proprietors. Perhaps where there is no competition, this is the case. In Washington, DC, there is concern for position, pay and prerogatives that masquerade as loyalty to the status quo. But where there is rivalry, like in London, as the late Lord Rothermere, erstwhile chairman of Associated Newspapers (the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard), said to me over dinner, after poaching one of my editors, “They are actors, and we own the theaters. They perform on our stages but don’t give a damn about us, and will go elsewhere tomorrow for an extra farthing a week.”

There's much more to enjoy in Black's piece (if this is the sort of thing you like) and if nothing else it allows a revealing view of the proprietorial mind. For that, and much else besides, it's highly recommended and not just because it's appeallingly rude about so many people generally held in too-high regard by journalists themselves.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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