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August 10, 2011

Black, Murdoch stories share traits

Geoffrey Stevens

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Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black make for an interesting study in media power. They are similar, yet quite different.

Both acquired great influence. Both were colonials who started their media empire at home (Murdoch in Australia; Black in Canada), then moved on to Britain to conquer Fleet Street.

Both gave up their original citizenship to further their business interests – and, in Black’s case, his social ambitions, as well.

Murdoch became bigger and richer. His media holdings span newspapers, conventional television, cable and satellite broadcasting, motion pictures (20th Century Fox) and book publishing (HarperCollins). Although Black was just a print guy, at his peak he was among the biggest in the English-speaking world. His Hollinger group dominated the Canadian newspaper industry, his Daily Telegraph made him arguably the most important publisher in Britain, and his Jerusalem Post made him a player on the international political scene.

Murdoch became a multibillionaire, a league to which Black could not aspire; he counted his wealth in mere dozens of millions.

Both were ruthless. When Black acquired the former Southam newspaper chain and rebranded it with the Hollinger name, he cleaned house. He fired journalists who did not subscribe to his conservative view of the country and the world; he downsized at the expense of quality, squeezing the papers relentlessly to fatten their profits.

Murdoch is demonstrating his ruthlessness in his desperate efforts to contain the phone hacking/police bribery scandal in London. He shut down the profitable News of the World; Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, leaving its employees on the street. He forced the resignation of everyone of any consequence at News International, including its chief executive, his protégé Rebekah Brooks, along with his old friend Les Hinton, who ran News International before he became publisher of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.

The only important figures left standing are Murdoch himself and his son James – and no one is betting that James will survive long once the parliamentary inquiry into the News of the World scandal gets going this week.

There is another similarity. Both Black and Murdoch controlled public corporations, but treated them as though they were private companies. Black’s disregard for the rights and interests of minority shareholders put him in prison; Murdoch’s threatens to bring down his empire.

There are differences. A student of history with a formidable vocabulary, Black is a prolific writer; his columns tend to be predictable polemics, but his biographies are impressive. Murdoch may read books, but he doesn’t “waste” time writing them.

They approach power differently. For Black, being publisher of the Daily Telegraph, was an entrée to British society as Conrad Black of Toronto became Lord Black of Crossharbour. The title was worth giving up his Canadian citizenship for.

Murdoch, in contrast, doesn’t give a hoot about titles. He is all business all the time. When British Prime Minister David Cameron released his appointments diaries last week, it was revealed that since he took office in May 2010, he had met no fewer than 26 times with Murdoch executives, including Rupert and his son. Twenty-six times in 14 months! It’s a safe assumption they were talking about matters more substantive than society balls or fox-hunting weekends in the country.

Not surprisingly, the two men don’t like each other. This goes back to Murdoch’s attempt to put Black out of business in London by waging a price war between his flagship, the Times of London, and Black’s Daily Telegraph.

Black is not the sort to forget. In a piece he wrote for London’s Financial Times last week, Black opened by praising Murdoch’s boldness and vision.

Then he got down to it: “Although his personality is generally quite agreeable, Mr. Murdoch has no loyalty to anyone or anything except his company . . . All his instincts are down-market; he is not only a tabloid sensationalist; he is a malicious mythmaker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism.”

Take that, Rupert!

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at . The KW Record.

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