Profile of Conrad Black: was his downfall inevitable?

Conrad Black bought his first newspaper at 22 – now he faces 35 years in jail for fraud. Was his downfall inevitable?

Conrad Black kept a picture of Al Capone on the silk-lined wall of Hollinger International's New York boardroom and would jokingly refer to him as "our chief shareholder". Unlike Capone, Black escaped being nailed for tax evasion last week, says The Independent on Sunday; eight other charges were also thrown out. But his conviction on three counts of fraud, and one of obstructing justice, could condemn him to a notional 35 years in jail.

It wasn't an outcome he had foreseen. "Stage one were the ululations of joy at the so-called downfall. Stage two is the big battle. Stage three is where I win," he remarked mid-trial. Yet his disgrace was hardly due to "a momentary aberration", says his biographer Tom Bower in The Sunday Times. A lengthy and profitable career as a fraud, liar and cheat dated back to his school days, when he stole and sold exam papers. "To understand Conrad Black", wrote Nicholas Coleridge in his 1993 book, Paper Tigers, "you must examine his relationship with his father; the talents and disappointments of George Black have more to do with Conrad's motivation than any single other factor".

His last words to his son, before he crashed through the balustrade of a staircase and fell to his death in 1976, were: "Life is hell, most people are bastards and everything is bullshit."

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It all began promisingly for Conrad Moffat Black. His father was president of Canadian Breweries, and he grew up in a Toronto mansion. A voracious reader, he was often called upon "to amaze guests" by reciting lists of battleships and prime ministers, says the Chicago Tribune. But life took a turn for the worse when his father was ousted from his post and became reclusive and depressed. Black, who bought his first share (in General Motors) at the age of eight, recalls night-time sessions playing chess and being tutored in the markets. He was so driven and self-assured that few were surprised when, at 22, he bought his first newspaper.

"In every life, there are particular events on which the future turns," says The Daily Telegraph. For Black, it was his 1969 meeting with David Radler. The "patrician" Black and his "faintly shabby" henchman made an odd couple. Yet Radler, who combined a phobia of germs with a foul mouth and a zest for brutal cost-cutting, was the perfect foil. They rolled out the template established on their first local rag again and again. The financial turning point came when Black inherited his father's stake in $4bn industrial conglomerate, Argus, and set about "tricking two widows to sign over control", says Bower. He was later condemned by a Ohio judge "for lying during a covert takeover bid". Yet thanks to careful deployment of "threats and writs", nothing could stop him. When he paid just £10m for the ailing Daily Telegraph in 1985, even Robert Maxwell marvelled at the "landing [of] history's largest fish with history's smallest hook". Black's 1992 marriage to Barbara Amiel, and their life of excess, "triggered a surge in his already proven dishonesty", says Bower. Why did he think he could get away with it? "He believed that, as in his earlier swindles, he could talk his way out of a tight corner; he convinced himself he had left no incriminating fingerprints; and... he never anticipated that David Radler would... testify for the prosecution in return for a minimum sentence." He was wrong on all counts.

How to avoid media scrutiny: own it

"Don't be too hard on Bob," Conrad Black said to his editor on The Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, on hearing the news of Robert Maxwell's drowning in 1991. "I know he was a crook, but he was a not uninteresting character." Many of Black's former staff watched his Chicago trial with "the same mixed feelings", says Sarah Sands in The Independent on Sunday. He was "preposterous and self-deceiving" but, as proprietors go, by no means the worst and he revived the Telegraph group. That's certainly more than you can say for Maxwell, says media commentator Stephen Glover. Black's theft from Hollinger pales in contrast to the Bouncing Czech's £500m raid on the Mirror Group and its pensioners: ultimately, the prosecution focused on $60m siphoned from "non-compete" agreements. "It may be invidious to compare frauds... but there are crooks and crooks."

Black's behaviour goes with the territory, says AA Gill in The Sunday Times. Name me a "decent, benign, honest" newspaper proprietor. "There isn't one." Every press baron in history (from Beaverbrook and Rothermere to Randolph Hearst) has shown the same "ego and megalomania". Judged by the size of crimes, you might even argue they're becoming more virtuous. The greatest villain of all was Horatio Bottomley MP, owner of popular weekly John Bull, who perpetrated the massive World War One Victory Bonds swindle. Press barons are by nature swashbuckling, says The Sunday Telegraph. But they're also less keenly scrutinised than their peers elsewhere. It's no coincidence that it took a group of shareholders to uncover Black's crimes. "One of the better ways to avoid proper investigation by the media is to own a large chunk of it."