Comments made by Conrad Black, one time head of Hollinger International Inc., on the untapped potential of Canadian news titles have prompted speculation that the former media magnate may be considering a return to the newspaper industry.
During a meeting of the editorial board at Huffington Post Canada, Black remarked that “[t]here is a great premium to be placed on the editorial function and on the goodwill of a famous trademark like a respected newspaper.” He went on to add that he could be interested by a “good title that’s grossly under-priced.” The current state of Canada’s news press could see Black presented with just such a low-cost opportunity in the near future. One of Canada’s largest news companies, Postmedia Network Canada Corp. has been forced to respond to declining ad revenue and debts of $516 million (CAD) with radical efficiency restructuring, involving job cuts and the cancellation of Sunday print editions in certain areas.
An interview with the BBC in 2010 saw Black admit that he would consider dabbling in news media once again, though not as the director of a company. The disgraced peer has maintained links with the world of journalism, writing columns for Huffington Post Canada and the National Post, the publication he founded in 1998. For now, Baron Black is remaining tight-lipped about his future projects, though at times his silence speaks volumes. When questioned by Huffington Post editors on how he would reinvigorate print media in the digital age, Black confessed that he was reluctant to outline any plans not for want of ideas, but because to do so “might be an untimely and excessive disclosure, and compromise anything [he] might do.”
The prospect of Black’s return was met with incredulity by The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, who cites the media mogul’s age and criminal past as barriers to a newspaper comeback. Lord Black of Crossharbour famously fell from grace in 2004, when a special committee of Hollinger directors accused him of having embezzled millions of dollars. A subsequent criminal trial in the US found Black guilty of obstruction of justice and three counts of fraud (two of which were later overturned by the Supreme Court). Now 67 - he turns 68 next month, Black would find himself competing in a media landscape that has undergone radical changes since he went to prison in 2007.
It is thought that Black’s remaining fortune stands at $80 million, and Greenslade argues: “If Black doesn't have the capital himself, which is unlikely, his record would hardly be attractive to potential investors.” Writing off Black’s chances of successfully relaunching himself as a force in newspapers because of financial concerns could however be premature; Black’s business acumen makes him an attractive partner for former friends and colleagues within the industry who are willing to look beyond his notoriety. For proof that it is possible to run a newspaper chain with a criminal conviction, look no further than Alberta Media Group, a privately held newspaper chain run by David Radley, a business partner of Black who was also convicted of fraud.
A far greater threat to Black’s professional future is posed by the legal problems that continue to haunt him. Having renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 in exchange for a British peerage, Black currently only has a temporary permit allowing him to reside in Canada, and it is unknown what options will remain open to him when that visa expires. Moreover, the Ontario Securities Commission still have proceedings from 2006 open against Black, he is currently prohibited from being a director or officer of a publicly held company in Ontario.
Love him or loathe him, Conrad Black bolstered Canada’s newspapers in the same way that Rupert Murdoch reinvigorated flagging British titles in the 80s and 90s, and could still possess the business know-how needed to reinvigorate the waning fortunes of the country’s newspaper industry. Though reviled in some quarters of the press both for his crimes and his behaviour when he was still one of the world’s most powerful media figures, it is unlikely that Black will limit his ambitions for fear of criticism: after all, he pities the fools who hate Conrad Black.