Black’s fall: ‘a morality play for us all’?

Even if you cheered Conrad Black's demise last week, you should be worried by the deeply conservative message about wealth and ambition that was spun from his trial.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics Politics

It’s like some latter-day Shakespearean tragedy (and a well-worn one at that): a newspaper magnate rises to the top using ruthless methods, an egomaniac barking orders to the hacks in the newsroom and imposing his views on the nation. Becoming richer, his consumption and soirées are over the top; while being of the media, he seeks to be forever in the media. Astride the Fourth Estate, he adopts grander ambitions and yearns for a more direct role in public life, mixing with politicians, financiers and intellectuals. And then, with a loud thud, comes the collapse: like Icarus he flies too close to the sun, he lets his ego get the best of him. William Randolph Hearst (and his film persona, Citizen Kane). Robert Maxwell. And now, it seems, Conrad Black.

Black certainly appears to fit the pattern. He once controlled a newspaper empire that spanned the globe, including the UK Daily Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and Canada’s National Post. A British life peer (Lord Black of Crossharbour), he has been a public figure known for his robust personality and right-wing (some say aristocratic) views, and for being, along with his journalist wife Barbara Amiel, a fixture in A-list social circles.

And his downfall has been amazing. On Friday, a US federal court in Chicago found Black guilty on three charges of mail fraud and one charge of obstruction of justice. He now faces up to 35 years in prison. At the age of 62, and with new laws requiring 85 per cent of a sentence to be served, this might mean a life sentence. Regardless of his sentence, he faces financial ruin and social pariah status. In a final insult, the paper he once saved, the Daily Telegraph, was now shouting to the world: ‘Black, the Fraudster.’ Black walked out of the courtroom, head high, vowing to fight on and appeal, but even in the best-case scenario he won’t regain his former rank among the elite.

Stories of the rise and fall of larger-than-life media barons are hard to resist. And few will shed any tears for the fairly ruthless capitalist Black. And yet, however compelling the arc of Black’s journey may be, it does not justify or explain the moralistic bucket of sludge that the media dumped on him (and us) following the guilty verdict. ‘Black’s life serves both as a grand tragedy and a morality play for us all’, concluded the Winnipeg Sun in Black’s native Canada (1). The idea that the Black case is a ‘morality play for us all’ is the red thread running through the media’s response generally, and is one that needs to be rejected.

In case of doubt, the Winnipeg Sun spells out the lesson ‘for us all’: ‘Greed will get you in the end, and pride cometh before a fall.’ One of Black’s unofficial biographers, Tom Bower, reached the same conclusion: ‘His rise and ruin is a familiar morality tale of those consumed by ambition and greed.’ (2)

Greed certainly is seen as the deadly sin in the Black case. According to the Telegraph, Black ‘allowed his greed to consume rational thought’ (3). As evidence of this greed, critics have attacked Black’s ‘lavish lifestyle’, outlining in great detail his personal spending habits. The normally sober Financial Times took a stab at Veblenian sociological analysis, venturing that ‘In his efforts to keep up with New York’s wealthiest socialites, he lost touch with the basic principles of honesty.’ (4)

Not far behind all this commentary on lifestyle is always Lady Black, who the media might as well come right out and call Lady Macbeth. Bower states ‘her influence cannot be exaggerated’. He writes: ‘His arrogance was complemented by Barbara Amiel’s disdain for mere mortals. Together they embarked on a decade of unaffordable excess, climaxing in a July 2000 spending spree in Bond Street, London, in which they snapped up a $2.6m diamond ring, a $600,000 brooch, couture clothes worth $217,000 and, as an afterthought, rare books for Black worth more than $100,000.’ (5) The gist of Bower’s biography – a work so rigorous it cannot go more than a few pages without making reference to Ms Amiel’s breasts – is that she drove him to a life of crime in order to meet her insatiable money demands. Indeed, for years now, the British media have more or less sung this same tune, with far more coverage devoted to Amiel’s wardrobe and parties than the (yawn) details of his trial (6).

In its zeal to prosecute Lord and Lady Black for crimes of consumption, the media did not let the fact that Black was found not guilty on the charges of excessive perks and parties stop them from banging on about ‘extravagances’. The Guardian’s leader described the trial as ‘a cross between Hello! magazine and a particularly racy edition of the Wall Street Journal.’ This is rich, given how the Guardian and others resorted to Hello!–style coverage. In fact, the Guardian leader – only a few paragraphs earlier – began with a rehashing of Rolls-Royces, birthday parties and a 747 jet.

What’s most problematic about these morality tales – and least remarked upon – are the backward social messages they send. In our anti-materialistic times, we are constantly told to lower our consumption horizons. Professor Richard Layard and others inform us that money doesn’t bring happiness (7). Attacks on ‘greed’, as in the aftermath of the Black case, are really warnings to the public-at-large: don’t seek more wealth, it will only lead to personal disaster. In the past, governments were attacked for failing to deliver prosperity. Today, rapid material advancement is not only considered unattainable but undesirable.

Another coded message for us all is the criticism of Black’s ‘arrogance’. As Toronto’s Globe and Mail put it: ‘Say it loud: Lord Black is too proud.’ It galls Black’s critics that he was not grovelling and apologetic. ‘The one person Lord Black seems genetically incapable of blaming is himself’, says the Globe and Mail (8). For ‘arrogance’ read ambition and determination. These are qualities that opponents of the powers-that-be – even opponents of right-wing media barons – need. Black himself is quoted as telling the Wall Street Journal, ‘Humility is a good quality, though it can be overdone.’ (9) On that point, he’s right.

While celebrating Black’s comeuppance, the media overlook how conservative all this is. Ironically, it was the Tory Boris Johnson, not Black’s radical critics, who astutely pointed this out: ‘For those of us who will never be global bigshots, who despair of ever owning a Lear jet or a chateau, for those of us with status anxiety – and that is all of us, baby – the hubris and apparent nemesis of the Blacks is a chance to feel just that little bit better about our place in the order of things.’ (10) In other words, we should know our place, and feel good about it.

This moralistic approach doesn’t shed any light on the trial itself and its broader implications. All of the puffed-up indignation expressed by the media doesn’t seem to square with the relatively small scale of the crime. Ultimately, Black and his co-defendants were found guilty of engineering payments to themselves, without the Hollinger International Board’s approval, of about $6m (£3m), with Black’s share estimated at roughly $3m (£1.5m). Of course, a crime is a crime, but it doesn’t add up to Enron billions. (Nor is Black’s take on the scale of Maxwell’s pension raid, which ran into hundreds of millions.)

The moral lens also misses how Black was merely a small fish that got caught in a much wider trawl: the criminalisation of executive behaviour (11). Post-Enron, US prosecutors have spent the past five years sending a PR message that they will stamp on white-collar crime. For example, getting tough on diva homemaker Martha Stewart was clearly for show – no one can seriously claim she was a threat to the integrity of the capitalist system. Business disputes that were once matters for civil courts have now been elevated to blunt, behind-bars criminal matters. This trend raises serious questions about the exercise of the rights of legal defence that go well beyond Black, but our media moralists are blind to it.

It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that the reaction to the Black verdict tells us more about the media itself, and the backward social messages of our time, than it does about the man, the case itself or its consequences for business and society generally.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill looked at what lay behind the media’s Barbara Amiel-bashing. Neil Davenport explained why everyone is attacking the super-wealthy. James Malone said Enron scandal-mongering went on and on. Daniel Ben-Ami thought Alex Gibney’s documentary about the American energy company was not the smartest film in the cinema. Mick Hume said the ‘fat cats’ of the private equity sector are a symptom, not the problem with capitalism today. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

(1) Licia Corbella, For Conrad, a black day in July, Winnipeg Sun, 14 July 2007

(2) Tom Bower, ‘My war with Conrad Black’, The Sunday Times, 15 July 2007. His biography is Outrageous Fortune: The Rise and Ruin of Conrad and Lady Black (Harper Collins, 2006)

(3) Jeff Randall, ‘Reality kicks in for bombast Conrad Black’, Sunday Telegraph, 15 July 2007

(4) ‘Lord Black’s crimes’, Financial Times, 14 July 2007

(5) Bower, ibid.

(6) See Who’s
afraid of… Barbara Amiel?
, by Emily Hill

(7) Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin Press, 2005).

(8) Jacquie McNish, ‘Say it loud: Lord Black is too proud’, Globe and Mail, 13 July 2007

(9) David Litterick, ‘Conrad Black profile: a ruthless tycoon’, Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2007

(10) Boris Johnson, ‘We owe Conrad and Barbara gratitude’, Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2007

(11) See Who’s Afraid of Enron? by Sean Collins; see also Tom Kirkendall’s blog, Houston’s Clear Thinkers

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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