Politics & Policy

Black Mark

The Hollinger story.

An odd feature of the continuing Hollinger newspaper saga involving Lord Conrad Black is the modest coverage devoted to its impact on the quality of the group’s newspapers and magazines. News pages have instead overwhelmingly concentrated on issues of shareholder democracy and securities regulation.

#ad#Such issues, of course, are ultimately vital. They may determine who ends up directing the Hollinger properties. Shareholders in general have long deserved better protection against both corporate management and government. And the media cannot be uniquely exempt from the market criteria journalists apply to every other business.

All that said, various social and cultural institutions–symphony orchestras, film studios, universities, scientific journals, theater festivals, and in this context newspapers and magazines–have a value and significance to the community above and beyond their commercial worth. This wider social value nullifies neither commercial realities nor the rights of capitalist ownership. But it does justify public debate and moral pressure over how those realities are accommodated and those rights exercised.

Not every newspaper or magazine falls into this landmark category. Those imaginative tabloids at the supermarket checkout would probably not arouse widespread social anxiety if threatened financially. But almost every publication in the Hollinger group does deserve our watchful concern (though not all on the same grounds).

The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph are, quite simply, the best conservative newspapers in the English-speaking world.

The London Spectator challenges The New Yorker for the status of the best-written general magazine anywhere.

The Chicago Sun-Times, a lively but serious tabloid, saves Chicago from what would otherwise be the absurd and shameful fate of being a one-newspaper town. (I would say more to its credit except that–full disclosure–I write a weekly foreign-affairs column for it.)

The Jerusalem Post widens the diversity of media opinion inside Israel and, by doing so, provides a more complete and accurate picture of Israeli public opinion to the outside world.

Hollinger’s smaller papers are often the only independent voices in their local communities.

And all of them are in ruder journalistic health than they were when acquired by Hollinger.

LIBERAL LORD

How much has Lord Black personally contributed to this health? Before I answer that question, additional disclosures are in order: Conrad Black is a longstanding friend, as is his wife Barbara. He hired me to help launch the National Post in Canada. And Hollinger owns 50 percent of The National Interest, which I edit. I believe Conrad Black to be an honorable man. More to the point in this context, I know from experience that he is a first-class newspaper proprietor.

Others here and in Britain have already pointed out one of his virtues: that, despite his political conservatism, he is a distinctly liberal proprietor. He appoints editors, lets them get on with their job, and if he disagrees with the editorial postures they strike, he sends in a letter for publication saying why. No editor can reasonably ask for more.

But other proprietors are also liberal in that sense. What distinguishes Black is that he has both repaired and created great newspapers.

The Telegraph papers had fallen on hard times when he bought them from Lord Hartwell. As someone who got his start on the pre-Black Daily Telegraph, I have a deep affection for it. Hartwell, no mean intellectual himself and the author of a favorable study of Keynes, was a thoughtful boss who debated courteously with his monetarist editors on the main issues of that day–incomes policy and inflation–but let them determine the final editorial “line.”

Both papers recruited a unique collection of fizzingly brilliant conservative journalists such as Colin Welch, T.E. Utley, Perry Worsthorne, Andrew Alexander, Charles Moore, Bill Deedes, and Frank Johnson. They preached Tory respectability with a bohemian flair. And they pioneered Thatcherism in advance of Lady Thatcher. I remember the editorial conferences of those days as fiestas of intellectual fun.

By the mid Eighties, however, a combination of labor-union obstructionism, expensive investment that could not be fully used, layout conservatism, the drifting away of some of the most talented writers, and a weak sense of market opportunities had brought the papers financially and spiritually low. Black took them over on favorable terms as a result of a shrewd loan earlier–and at a time when the power of the printing unions had been broken and the economics of British newspapers revolutionized.

With his new editors Max Hastings and Perry Worsthorne, he set about rejuvenating the good old Telegraphs. He did so by going up market rather than down. The layout of both papers became

cleaner, neater, but also more forceful. Their reporting became livelier and more aggressive, but also directed by solid news values. Strong contemporary features and bold use of photography were introduced. And almost within the year, the Daily Telegraph was awarded the title of “Newspaper of the Year” by the respected television journalistic watchdog program What the Papers Say.

Since then both Telegraphs have had their ups and downs under several editors. They have had to face strong commercial competition, ironically from Rupert Murdoch, who had handed the new Telegraphs their initial financial advantage by breaking the power of the labor unions, but who now launched a “price war” against the Daily Telegraph by slashing the price of the rival London Times in half.

The price war drained the Telegraph group of what otherwise would have been substantial profits, and is almost certainly the underlying cause of Black’s and Hollinger’s recent troubles. But the Daily emerged as the market leader among the quality broadsheets, and the Sunday retains consistently the best coverage of the arts, politics, and intellectual life of the weekend papers.

Giving the Telegraphs almost 20 years of improved journalistic and commercial life is a very remarkable achievement. As an old Telegraph hand, I salute Conrad Black for it.

CREATION & RESURRECTION

Repair is not the same as creation. Some observers, notably “Bagehot” in The Economist and Tina Brown in the Washington Post, draw a distinction between a status quo conservative like Black, supposedly avid for House of Lords ermine, and a creative radical like the anti-monarchist Murdoch–inevitably to Black’s disadvantage. Having worked happily for both men, I see no necessity to pull down one in order to elevate the other. Black’s style is certainly the more establishment one–the first biography of him by Peter C. Newman was entitled Establishment Man, and he enjoys the panoply of political life–but he is no respecter of the status quo in either business or politics.

Both Black and Murdoch are above all risk takers. Both men have built empires and, at times, have seen those empires tremble. And both have necessarily employed creation and destruction in the “creative destruction” of capitalism. If other magnates can say as much, however, Black and Murdoch are among the very few men who can boast of starting a national newspaper–Murdoch having launched the Australian over thirty years ago and Black the National Post in Canada five years ago.

Of these two launches, the National Post may arguably be judged the more creative in that it stimulated creation as well as arose from it. Before the advent of the National Post, the world of Canadian media was suffocatingly dull, narrow, and conformist. Probably not coincidentally, so was the world of Canadian politics. Both the Liberal government and the Toronto Globe and Mail ruled with a smug self-assurance and a knee-jerk liberal agenda born of lack of competition.

Into this stagnant pond splashed the National Post–conceived by Black and by two superb journalistic impresarios, editor Ken Whyte and his deputy Martin Newland (now editor of the Daily Telegraph)–with high professional standards, streetwise insights, unapologetic conservative attitudes, and excitement on every page. It quickly established itself as a national paper, won a grateful readership among both the politically conservative and the culturally hungry (especially gays, interestingly), saw its circulation rise dramatically across the country, and used its newfound power to promote a marriage between the two squabbling right-of-center opposition parties.

By the time that Hollinger sold the paper to the Asper family, its rivals like the Globe and Mail had been energized by the new competition into greatly improving their product. The National Post continues–there will always be a buyer for an established national paper. And its influence continues as well in the greater liveliness and open-mindedness of Canadian journalism and in last weekend’s merger of the right-wing parties. These are unusual achievements for a status quo conservative.

THE PROPER PROPRIETOR

In fact, such achievements are the product of a very different kind of risk-taking leadership. They tend not to be produced by committees or by bureaucratic procedures. It is surely not a coincidence that almost all of the great creative media entrepreneurs–Northcliffe, Hearst, Beaverbrook, Murdoch–have all been outsiders in some sense, seen as buccaneers, or as “foreign,” or as dangerously unbalanced (reasonably enough in the case of Northcliffe, who ended his days in a lunatic asylum). Success on the shifting precipice of the media business requires a bold and innovative imagination that draws both on entrepreneurial business abilities and on large cultural insights.

Some critics, especially in Britain, have lamented the possibility that Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Express papers, might purchase the two Telegraphs, on the grounds that he is a shameless pornographer. Though I would feel a decided pang at the papers’ being in the same stable as Asian Babes, Desmond might not be their worst fate if he appointed decent editors and then left them to fend for themselves. He might be bullied into doing just that by the kind of pressures that the British establishment can still apply to those seeking respectability. But there is a risk that a Desmond-owned Telegraph would simply not be taken seriously by anyone. (Which is presumably why the Blair government is rumored to look favorably on his bid.)

A fate even worse than Desmond would be a take-over by the kind of media conglomerate that seeks the approval not of any political establishment but of the much more powerful media elite in the networks, public-service broadcasting, America’s monopoly metropolitan dailies, and the journalism schools. Such conglomerates tend to produce papers like–well, like the Toronto Globe and Mail in pre-<National Post days, all high-mindedness, formal neutrality, actual liberal orthodoxy, and yesterday’s Nine O’Clock News. The magnificently robust Daily Telegraph would end up like a Gannett paper that is designed to offend no one and so delights no one. And an academic dullness would descend on the Sunday Telegraph’s wonderfully civilized review pages.

Compared with either Desmond or Gannett–the Devil or the Deep Grey Sea–the present proprietor seems a much better bet. From a journalistic standpoint, he has been a good steward who has made great newspapers and magazines greater–and created journalistic competition where before a stifling conformity reigned. Almost anyone else looks worse.

John O’Sullivan is editor of The National Interest and is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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