The best newspaper proprietor I have ever worked for—bar none, and that includes myself—has been Lord Black of Crossharbour. Conrad Black and his wife, the writer Barbara Amiel, have been in the news lately, and the news has not been good. The trial that began last Wednesday in the dispute between Hollinger International, the newspaper company, and Conrad Black, will decide who—if anyone—has been telling porkies or playing with the till. Until then, however, I reserve the right to come to the defense of a man whom I have grown to admire throughout the 20 years I have written for his papers.
One of the first things I learned upon arriving on these shores as a rather scared 11-year-old headed for a strict boarding school called Lawrenceville, was that over here everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. (In Greece, back then, the reverse was true.) But this principle has not been applied where Conrad and his wife are concerned. Talk about trial by the press. The Blacks have been pilloried, their good names dragged through the mud, their achievements belittled as if they were three-time losers already. I will not deal with the business side of the dispute; this will be decided by the court. But I will tell you about the man—the extraordinary man who is Conrad Black.
I know many newspaper proprietors who started with a small local paper and finished owning television stations, cable companies, and sheep farms in Australia, but only one who began by owning goldmines in Canada and traded them in for newspapers. As Mark Steyn wrote, “Beating swords into ploughshares is one thing, beating your ploughshares into words is another.” No one has loved newspapers better than Conrad, and no newspaper proprietor knows more than Conrad. The man is a walking encyclopedia, with vast knowledge of history, the classics, politics, and anything else one can possibly think of. Last month, while dining with him in New York, the conversation turned to shipping. As the son of a rather major ship-owner, I was embarrassed at the things he knew about the business that I did not. His massive biography of FDR has been judged to be the definitive study of a man as controversial as Conrad himself.
Why is Black so controversial? That’s easy. He does not take any crap from know-nothing journalists back in Canada and England, and his withering letters to the editor backing up his arguments with facts show up how little journalists know. He is also a true conservative. Space does not permit the countless examples I have to show how Black changed British politics by backing Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s policies when the rest of the proprietors went running for cover.
Once the Evil Empire collapsed, Conrad and I parted ways in a manner of speaking. I did not agree with his continued embrace of Israel and the neocons, starting with Richard Perle and Elliot Abrams. When Dominic Lawson was appointed editor of Conrad’s Spectator in 1990, the first call he took was from the Israeli ambassador. His Excellency wanted Dominic to fire me. Lawson, who is Jewish, said thanks, but no thanks. Conrad was next. The Israeli demanded my head. Black refused. He never even told me about it. When Lawson published an article that forced one of Maggie’s most trusted ministers to resign, Thatcher was furious. Black, who was very close to her, did not even bother to discuss it with Lawson. He backed his editor to the full. Ditto when a so-called anti-Semitic article about Hollywood made it into the elegant Spectator pages. Black was threatened with a boycott of his then 200 newspapers by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, and others of their ilk. Again, he stood firm, not even sending a note to his editor.When Puerto Rican leaders and Mayor Giuliani threatened another boycott over remarks made by yours truly over the disgusting behavior of Puerto Ricans during their annual parade, Conrad defended me and told them to do what they must. Three times during the last 15 years, Conrad has written letters to the Spectator denouncing what I have written about Israel. Three times I metaphorically packed my bags. But there was no firing. Instead, Conrad came up to me at a party and told me he hoped I would stay another 25 years with his magazine.
So much tripe has been published against his wife, I don’t know where to begin—that she’s a snob, that she treats editors as help, that she talks about her airplanes. It’s all lies, and I happen to know. I knew Barbara when she was poor and a very good writer, and she remained the same after she married Conrad. In fact, she prefers to be with writers and journalists than the people her husband’s position forces her to see most of the time.Conrad Black took the Telegraph company, which was moribund, and turned it into a powerful weapon for the values we conservatives believe in. He was a great proprietor, but more important, a great visionary. He and his wife should get their good name back and the sooner the better. True conservatives cannot afford to lose them.