Who’s afraid of Conrad Black?

By Еvan Osentоn

Society’s idea of what comprises a media baron has been largely shaped by the character of Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles’ megalomaniacal newspaper owner in the 1941 movie, Citizen Kane. The oft-despised character of Kane was loosely based upon William Randolph Hearst, a real-life media baron renowned for his immense media holdings, and the tyrannical and eccentric manner by which he ran them.

The most famous media-mogul in the world today and a man who many have compared to Kane and Hearst, is Canada’s own Conrad Black.

He is a man who, due to his concentrated ownership of Canadian media, students should be well-informed about. If nothing else, Black is a man who cannot and must not be ignored.

Who is Conrad Black?
Conrad Black is arguably one of the most controversial and powerful men in Canada. For that matter, he is one the most powerful men in the world. As CEO of Hollinger Inc., he owns and dictates the editorial content of 384 newspapers worldwide, with a daily circulation of over 4.1 million. Included among these papers are such prestigious dailies as the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and the London Daily Telegraph.

It is in Canada, however, where Hollinger’s assets become even more impressive as a result of their increased concentration. Now controlling 60 of Canada’s 106 daily newspapers, and reaching over 2.4 million Canadians everyday, Conrad Black is the most influential man in shaping public opinion in Canada. The National Post, in only its third year, has the third highest readership of any paper in Canada while most of Black’s other assets (the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen etc.) are the best-read papers in their markets.

The Perception of Black
A man with power in the media and a cultivated prominence in the public eye obviously attracts a great deal of attention. However, to say that Black is portrayed in a largely negative light by academics, activist groups, former employees, and media critics would be an understatement. Many accuse him of being an egomaniacal, mercurial and condescending power-broker whose primarily economic interest in newspaper ownership not only threatens the sanctity of the profession, but the democratic process which the media is intended to facilitate.

True power in a democracy lies not in its head of state–it lies with its media. As such, Black’s agenda, trumpeted by his near-monopolistic media holdings, extends into just about every aspect of Canadian society. Media, especially in a democracy, dictates how people access information. One person controlling so much access to information naturally concerns many democratically-minded people. But are their concerns valid?

Robert Bragg, a former Calgary Herald columnist and Editorial board member left the Herald to teach journalism at Mount Royal College. His wife is currently on strike with other Herald employees.

"There’s too much concentration of [newspaper] ownership in Canada, more so than most developed countries," he said. "Conrad [Black] has most of the major dailies in most of the major markets… between those dailies and Quebecor products [another newspaper chain], which are not really competitive, you’ve got a monopoly situation."

Bragg believes the situation in Canada is a concern because of Black’s tendency to wield editorial power over his properties.

"It’s worse than it used to be because it’s all under one owner and that one owner has a narrow agenda," he said. "It’s a pretty narrow news product and people have no choice at the local level.

"There’s no variety in terms of the personality or the agenda of the owner percolating down and permeating the whole process of news gathering, so that what becomes important, what becomes news and what becomes published, is dictated by the ideology and the biases of the owner."

"There’s a problem with corporate ownership of the media, period," said Steven Staples, BC organizer for the Council of Canadians–a watchdog organization especially critical of Black.

"The fact is, the concentration of media ownership, and Black’s own penchant for interfering in the editorial direction of papers, is causing a crisis in the media in Canada."

Staples said "without a doubt" media concentration is a problem, but a man like Black exacerbates this problem.

"There’s a definite record in terms of [Black] hiring people with the same political vent–there’s been incidents where he himself has run his own opinion pieces in all the newspapers he owns," he said. "There have been incidents where we know Black directly is involved in the day-to-day operations of what goes on the front page in the Vancouver Sun and other papers. These manipulations have been widely reported."

As a former Herald employee, Bragg saw first-hand Black’s interference with the editorial content of his papers.

"He does it by finding people who agree with him and this happens noticeably in papers like the National Post, where there’s kind a editorial agenda that is very much in keeping with his views," Bragg said. "That would be okay if there was any competition, but there is [none], except perhaps in Toronto.

"You find a very narrow news agenda that doesn’t have any use for multiversity, or diversity, multiculturalism, or opposing views. Opposing views get characterized as ‘left wing’ and ‘marginal nut cases.’ Since they have a monopoly of the news agenda they can get away with it through repetition–the real power of the press. That’s what [Black] uses to continuously flog [his] views."

Bragg listed some specific examples of how Black’s editorial control may have influenced government policy.

"For example, the tax-cutting agenda… paid off in dividends with the latest federal budget, or the promotion of [Alberta Treasurer] Stockwell Day to the so-called United Alternative–which doesn’t even exist as a registered party, yet has more validity and gets more ink than the New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives combined."

Robert M. Seiler, professor of Communications Studies at the University of Calgary, understands where Black is coming from, although does not endorse his policies.

"The media giants… are by definition businesses which concentrate on making a profit, attracting advertisers and so on," he said. "They are controlled by wealthy people who are constrained by market/profit forces first and foremost. I would say that corporate ownership has a negative impact on content, in terms of news choices, advertising and so on."

While Black may be renowned for cost-cutting, he is, says Seiler, a product of the inevitable globalization and increased competitiveness of his industry. Seiler believes a Canadian perspectives are lost in the scramble to represent news issues so that they appeal to a wider, and more profitable, audience.

"His employees… would say that Black is not so much interested in local participation, community building if you will, so much as the big picture, which means making a profit," he said. "Making a profit is not bad, by definition, but it is shameful to sacrifice individuals in the process."

Testaments to such an assertion are widespread; one notable example is a day known only as "Black Saturday" when one quarter of the Regina-Leader Post’s staff was fired on a single day. (A study conducted shortly thereafter of the Leader Post’s content by the University of Regina concluded coverage of specific beats suffered dramatically, performing "at 20 per cent previous levels"). Black typically justified this slash-and-burn policy, especially at recently acquired papers, as justified in the quest for a healthier bottom line.

Pause for thought
Black has defined the role of a newspaper as a gatherer, organizer and packager of information in an appealing way for readers, not in terms of "public service" and "social obligation" that the founders of the newspaper industry allegedly embraced. In Richard Siklos’ Shades of Black, Black states this is, "a terrible amount of self-righteous claptrap about a sacred trust." In other words, Black appears to see newspapers as businesses first and defenders of the public faith secondly.

According to his critics, Black should recognize media as a sacred trust, or a public institution too important to democracy to be used for monetary or personal profit. They argue that not only is monopolistic control dangerous no matter who controls the reins, but even if it were not so, that Conrad Black is definitely not the man to be trusted with such a responsibility.

Black as Newspaper Owner
Black is alleged to not be afraid to use his powers for self-indulgent pontification at the expense of free speech. Black and wife Barbara Amiel, share their politics and both are considered extremely vocal; Black through his newspaper holdings, and Amiel through her nationally syndicated column in MacLean’s and the National Post. Both are seen by their opponents as ruthless right-wing authoritarians–archaic in mentality, they have been accused of rampant intolerance towards multiculturalism and feminism, and discriminating based on such things as poverty and sexual orientation. For example, Amiel is quoted in Maude Barlow and James Winter’s The Big Black Book comparing same-sex marriages to beastiality and dismissing the "neuropathy of homosexuality," while the same book reports the "trendiness" of claims of child-abuse and the increasing focus on the plight of single mothers in Canada once made Black "sick to his stomach."

Barlow and Winter agree that it is not what Black owns that makes him influential, it is who he is that does so.

"It is the content of [his] views, not [his] extraordinary reach, that we should be concerned about," they write. "Like William Randolph Hearst, Black has been quite open about using his newspapers for political influence… [he] is not above using the services of his journalists for partisan purposes… [and] he use[s] his newspapers to promote his political views."

Barlow and Winter’s concern, like many others, is that viewpoints expressed in Canada’s media are increasingly by only one very opinionated man.

"If anyone, no matter who they are, exercises monopolistic control over one of our resources, then this is cause for the utmost concern," they write. "When that resource is the daily newspaper market, there is particular cause for alarm. [Our] situation is further exacerbated by the fact the people in control are Conrad and Barbara Amiel Black. If 60 out of 105 of our daily newspapers were in the hands of [rival media-mogul and owner of the Globe and Mail] Ken Thompson, then it would be deplorable.

"[However,] Thompson is not known for undue interference with his newspapers. As long as they make the profits, he largely leaves them to their own devices."

Calgary Herald strike
The issue of the control Black maintains over the Canadian media is especially pressing for Calgarians right now as the Black-controlled Calgary Herald is currently mired in a four month-old strike. Black obtained the Herald in 1996 when Hollinger assumed majority control. Circulation and profits went up almost immediately due to style and content changes.

However, now striking journalists at the Herald argue the quality began to diminish as well. As such, striking Herald employees have made it clear they are fighting Black, not fighting for higher wages, or nostalgia.

A pamphlet, distributed by strikers, reads, "We need your help to fight Conrad Black. Black’s only goal is to crush our two unions and deny our right to a fair contract. The Calgary Herald is no longer your paper. Your advertising and subscription dollars do not stay in Calgary. Black is bleeding the Herald to finance his pet projects, like the National Post…"

Theirs, they claim, is a battle to reaffirm the overriding philosophy of media–of journalistic integrity; of local focus. Specifically, strikers are asking for a seniority clause to protect themselves from indiscriminate firings.

Seiler said that Black feels a seniority clause encourages complacency.

"He is prepared to sacrifice people to make his point–that seniority gets in the way of up-to-date reporting." However, Black encourages longevity in his employees, if for no other reason because, as Seiler puts it, "people move up through the ranks of his organization(s) to the extent that they internalize his values."

Bragg feels a seniority clause is a fair request and affirms that Black is a major reason for the outbreak of the Herald strike in the first place.

"[The strike] is reflective of [Black’s] attitude towards unions and towards anyone who stands up to him–he calls them gangrenous limbs," he said.

"He has always exhibited contempt for journalists. His refusal to negotiate even a minimum contract, aided and abetted by Alberta’s weak labour laws, is just typical of his attitude towards anyone who stands up to him. Seniority clauses exist in all major newspapers as far as I know, except the National Post."

Neither Bragg nor Staples predicted an end to the Herald labour dispute any time soon.

"There doesn’t seem to be any incentive for Black and the Herald to end the strike," said Bragg. "They seem to be willing to go to very far extremes in teaching a ‘lesson’ to people who try to stand up to them. This could have been ended very amicably many, many months ago but it has transformed into this vendetta against the staff, and to my way of thinking, its been absolutely avoidable."

Staples said a boycott might be the only way to expedite an end to the strike.

The National Post has bourne the brunt of opposition to Black.
It is expected to lose up to $130 million before it turns a profit within five to seven years. Analysts say that Southam might have lost up to $40 million the first year. Black reportedly has the reserves to stomach such a loss.

Conrad Black is a man with great influence, and this power increases exponentially by year as Black’s acquisitions mount. However, it is not so much Black’s power per se but the method behind the man that has many people concerned.

The combination of Black’s editorial agenda, reportedly forced upon his papers, his heavy-handedness with which he is alleged to deal with employees, his purported obsession with the ‘bottom line’ over editorial content, his alleged intolerance of opposing viewpoints in a profession which is supposed to hold opposing ideas paramount, and his critics’ perception of Black as possessing disregard for the fundamental concepts behind the ‘free-press’, give many cause for alarm.

As of Dec. 1998, Quebecor Inc./Sun Media owned 25.4 per cent of the country’s daily circulation, second only to Black’s Southam-Hollinger chain which accounts for more than 40.7 per cent. As of 1996, Hollinger Inc., Thompson Newspapers and Sun Media controlled over 72 per cent of daily circulation in Canada (up from 57 per cent in 1980). Three newspaper chains owned nearly three-quarters of the information Canadians rely upon for shaping their opinions about themselves, their cities, their country and their world.

Black, despite opposition from critics and rival newspaper owners, is fast closing in on becoming the last man standing in a battle for which the prize essentially is the right to tell Canadians how to think and act. A sobering awareness of Conrad Black and the implications of his near monopoly over Canadian media are essential if we are to understand and regulate his impact on the lives of Canadians, and move to correct a situation of ever-increasing concern.