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Friday, December 8, 2006
Conrad the king
For those fond of tales of corporate excess followed by hubris punished -- guilty as charged -- I highly recommend John Lanchester's piece about a new, somewhat salacious book about the erstwhile media baron Conrad Black and his troubled wife in the new London Review. The book is "Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge" (long ago published here). Lanchester tsk tsks the author, Tom Bower, for his evident delight in exposing and lambasting the fallen king, but he has some of his own animus to air:
The arc of Blackís story, however, is close to tragic, or it would be, if Black wasnít quite such a bully and blowhard.
Lanchester also notes Black's use of leveraging to control newspapers in his early (and late) career. He would gain $X million in shares and establish control over an $X billion public company. This was in essence illegal in England, he writes -- news to me.
(That kind of company structure, in which a minority share has control of the voting rights, is not legal for a public company in this country. This is one of the reasons Black was later to float his business interests in the US. Common sense would point out that this is a flawed system, though as Bower says, itís not a criticism youíll find being levelled in the New York Times or Washington Post, both of which have similar structures.)
Ooh, clean hit. In fact, Lanchester's closing observation is that in ignoring the fundamental basis of capitalism -- that is, using capital instead of borrowed and imaginary figures -- was paradoxically Black's whole game.
As a parenthetical, Lanchester has interesting things to say in part because he worked for years at the Daily Telegraph, Black's first major newspaper holding. Interesting to learn that Black was regarded of something of a loudmouth but a fine owner nonetheless. However...
The great exception to that was [Black's wife] Barbara Amielís terrible column on the op-ed page, any mention of which would cause Telegraph staffers to clutch their heads and groan in unsimulated pain.