In Corrupt America: Conrad Black

In Corrupt America: Conrad Black

For a long time, there seemed to be nothing on this Earth that could bring down Conrad Black. Not his first expulsion from school. Not his second. Nothing.

A “rapacious daredevil” living a “Rolls-Royce lifestyle” and arrogant to no end, Black became a globe-spanning media mogul, gobbling up newspapers left and right until he had empire beneath his Hollinger International banner. To that name, Black had captured The Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Telegraph, Jerusalem Post, National Post and hundreds of community newspapers throughout North America, making him the third largest newspaper magnate in the world. But ultimately, according to the court decision that has left him behind bars since 2008, it was his greed and arrogance that finally brought the newspaper baron to the ground.

Born into a wealthy Canadian family in 1944, Black grew up in a lavish lifestyle that he would work hard to keep up and expand. At only 25, the man took his first step toward becoming a media juggernaut when he purchased The Sherbrooke Record with his friend and business partner, David Radler. With Radler taking up the business side of the operation, Black oversaw the editorial, even contributing some of the content himself. Through sheer force of will and hard work, the two men flipped the money leaking paper into a profit-earning enterprise, ultimately taking over multiple local papers throughout Canada. What Radler and Black had on their hands was a profitable chain of papers.

But two key deaths would redirect the duo’s plans. In 1976, Black’s father, George Black, passed away, bequeathing him his huge stake in the Argus Corporation, Canada’s largest holding company. Two years later, Bud McDougald, another leader at Argus, died, leaving a power vacuum behind at the company. Seeing his chance, Black stepped in, convincing McDougald’s wife and sister-in-law to sign away Argus to him. Still only in his 30s, Black had the keys to his empire.

His contentious takeover of the company was only the beginning of a rocky relationship with the business world in Canada. Soon after he took over, Black began sparking controversies over employee pensions and money transfers between his companies. In an interview at the time, Black demonstrated the philosophy that would turn him into an even bigger success while also causing his eventual downfall. “Greed,” Black was quoted as saying, “has been severely underestimated and denigrated, unfairly so, in my opinion "¦ It is a motive that has not failed to move me from time to time.”

Black’s arrogance though, at this time, was well earned. After taking over Argus, the magnate had turned his£3.5 million inheritance into a£2 billion conglomerate. But just as he was poised to be at the helm of one of Canada’s most successful companies, Black made a decision few saw coming: He went about disassembling Argus. Selling off most of the company’s assets, Black took what remained, renamed the company Hollinger and redirected its focus on newspapers. From there, Black bought up the Telegraph newspapers and had achieved his globe-spanning fame.

Life for Black and his family grew suitably extravagant. Jet-setting across the globe, hanging in super-rich circles with fellow moguls, politicians and entertainers, the baron lived life in a different stratosphere than most — but it wouldn’t last. When Hollinger began to feel the burgeoning effects of media fragmentation and the growth of the internet, Black decided to begin the selling of some of his papers. Typically in a newspaper sale, companies organize “non-competition” agreements where the company purchasing the paper pays a fee to the former company so that they won’t use local knowledge to set up a rival paper. Seeing an opportunity for more money, Black decided to write himself into these agreements, so that new buyers were paying him individually in their “non-compete” agreements. Unfortunately for Black, this is not legal.

When a letter from an investor revealed the way the company was run in 2003, both Black and his partner Radler were put on trial for fraud. Until the end, however, Black believed in his innocence, and did not think he would be found guilty. According to the Telegraph, Black said in an email message to a documentary filmmaker in 2004, “It will startle an entire burgeoning industry of pundits, eulogists and curio-vendors, but I’m far from dead. When everyone is finished dancing on my grave, they may be disconcerted to find I am not in it.” In 2007, however, Black was convicted, sentenced to 78 months in prison, payed Hollinger $6.1 million and was fined $125,000.

Currently, life in prison doesn’t appear to be much of a struggle for Black. Before he began his sentence, Black told his former newspaper, The National Post, that he would use the time to shed some pounds and hopefully take up a “bookish” job behind bars. A year later, Black reported back saying, “There is no violence and everyone tries to make conditions for everyone as decent as possible. There are few abrasions with the regime, and I don't affront the regulations. It is not difficult to find interesting people to talk to and I have time to read and write.” In between his job as an English and History tutor for his fellow residents, the former media mogul even finds time to write book reviews (check this one out from the Daily Beast). He continues to profess his innocence.