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Conrad Black’s problem was that he flew too close to the sun – alias Rupert Murdoch

Why are we so interested in former Telegraph owner Conrad Black?

Well lots of you aren’t of course but we hacks are, sadly. Black, who’s just been released on bail from a Florida penitentiary where he was incarcerated on fraud offences, is going to be all over the posh newspapers for the next few weeks as he seeks to overturn his conviction.

And wreak his revenge on the ‘pygmies’ and ‘Nazis’ who helped to put him in jail in the first place (his description).

Black is clever (he wrote a good, if hardly objective, book on Richard Nixon) but he’s also a Canadian chancer who, after a chequered business career, made it into the big time with his bargain-basement purchase of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in the UK in the 1990s. And, like many clever businessmen, fell in love with the apparent power and influence that national newspaper ownership gave him (he’d owned lots of local papers in Canada before).

As such he turned out to be a good proprietor (writing letters to the editor at the Telegraph complaining about things rather than firing Max Hastings) until he is thought to have screwed up, twice.

One mistake was supposed to be marrying extra-ambitious Canadian columnist Barbara Amiel (also pictured), now Lady Black, who encouraged his penchant for extravagance. Far more important was launching a big UK stock market rights issue through blue-blooded brokers Cazenove and then dramatically reducing the price of his papers to compete with News International’s Rupert Murdoch.

The share price dropped like a stone, Caz (now part of JP Morgan) resigned the business in outrage and Conrad was never trusted in the City again, relocating his Hollinger company to the US. There, of course, he was done for treating the company’s money as his own.

But his real error was in thinking he could take on Rupert Murdoch on level terms. Just like late Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell before him (a far bigger villain) he tried to go head to head with Murdoch, the owner of the Sun, The Times and the Sunday Times in the UK, and failed.

Murdoch has actually lost far more money on UK newspapers than Black or even Maxwell ever did but he has the resources from his global News Corporation to do so.

And, much as he enjoys his political influence, he does not spend money like water on fancy houses, extravagant parties and trophy titles to try to show what a big shot he is.

Everybody knows he is the big shot.

Black is never likely to be a big player on the publishing stage again. Indeed the US judges he seems to have confounded may yet succeed in sending him back to the clanger.

But the lesson is clear: don’t tangle with Murdoch. Next up might be new Channel Five owner Richard Desmond who also owns the Daily Express and Star. He said a while ago that he had a billion or so available and he would be interested in buying the Sun.

Well Murdoch might even sell it to him for that kind of money. But Desmond, before he gets too cocky, might look at the careers of Maxwell and Black and take stock.

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Barbara Amiel Conrad Black Daily Telegraph Max Hastings richard desmond Rupert Murdoch

About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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