Thursday, September 02, 2004

Pirates of Crapitalism: The Curse of the Black-Perles

As Seb and General Glut note, Captain Lord Conrad Black, embattled owner of a fleet of plunderers, and for far too long direct commander of the H.M.S. Journalistic Feces, even has standards above those of Richard Perle.

To gain a firmer purchase on the hierarchy of these standards, and to determine just how poorly all this reflects on Perle, it may be useful to review a bit of Black's record.

He was a downsizer extraordinaire:
But whereas Thomson's financial management has been characterized as stingy, Black's is usually described as ruthless. David Radler, current president of Hollinger, and Black's long-time right-hand, has bragged about going at night into a newspaper that they've been planning on buying to count the desks, estimating from that number how many staff should be fired upon acquisition (Winter, Democracy's Oxygen). Radler used to regularly quote from a 19th Century manual on industrial relations that "began with the premise that all employees are slothful, incompetent and dishonest," according to Black (Report on Business, 10/93).

He out-Murdoched Rupert Murdoch himself with regard to injecting his reactionary ideology into the publications he owned:
Black is reputed to be a hands-on owner who is known to "routinely intervene in editorial policy-making," according to Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians. Radler, Hollinger's president, explained the company's editorial policy to Maclean's (2/3/92): "If editors disagree with us they should disagree with us when they're no longer in our employ. The buck stops with ownership. I am responsible for meeting the payroll; therefore I will ultimately determine what the papers say...


Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, describes a typical takeover by Black's Hollinger this way (CounterSpin, 8/15/96): "They fire half the staff, they get rid of the environment reporters and the social affairs and the education and health reporters, and they replace them with businesspeople --or they don't replace them at all.... Anyone not singing that very right-wing Newt Gingrich type of...line is soon let go."

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1990 piece for the London Review of Books, offers this quote from the book Not Many Dead: Journal of a Year In Fleet Street, by Nicholas Garland:
Alexander reminded me that Black once said that he was prepared to let his editors have a completely free hand except on one subject. He forbade attacks on American Presidents in general and Ronald Reagan in particular.

Hitchens then goes on to relate his experience with Black. After he'd written an unflattering column (this was well before the Pod People got to Hitch) on Ronald Reagan, Black sent him a note saying that he intended to buy the paper which published Hitchens so that he could put Hitchens, and anyone like him, out of a job. Hitchens laughed the threat off, thinking it was a bluff. Black bought the paper; Hitchens was sacked. A different paper hired Hitchens. Black rang him and said in so many words that he was reprehensible and should be fired from it as well. Apparently Black didn't own enough of that paper at the time to get his way. Thwarted, Black spread a rumour that Hitchens was a "mental case" and opined that he should be "exterminated."

Stealing from his employees' retirement funds:
Hollinger International was used as a piggy bank by Black and his wife Barbara Amiel.

Amid the dry financial analysis, Richard Breeden, the former chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission who prepared the report, displays a novelist's eye for the killer observation.

The glimpses he provides of the Blacks' gilded lifestyle would be good material for an Anthony Trollope or a Tom Wolfe. Black, we learn, charged Hollinger International for his wife's handbags, jogging clothes and - a personal favourite - silverware for the couple's private jet.

We also learn of the Beluga caviar and lobster ceviche served at one of her birthday party dinners. Intriguingly, the guests included US news anchor Barbara Walters who recently conducted high-profile interviews with American domestic diva Martha Stewart who has been sentenced to jail for her role in a share deal gone bad.

The report provided investors and observers of Lord Black's crumbling career as a media tycoon with new details about how the former Hollinger boss and David Radler, a long-time colleague, allegedly colluded to steal $400m from Hollinger or 95 per cent of its adjusted net income between 1997 and 2003.

The allegations span from relatively minor examples of misuse of funds including charging Hollinger $42,870 for Lady Black's birthday party at La Grenouille in New York to large-scale fraud and tax avoidance.

Stealing from the public:
Lord Black's accounting firm, KPMG, also was squirming at this same time in front of a U. S. Senate committee, for it has been caught reaping millions in fees for sleazy tax shelters it designed to help its rich clients escape paying their taxes.

Quite a record. But evidently pirates like Black believe in such quaint sayings as "honour among thieves." Richard Perle, alas, does not:
on February 1, 2002, Lord Black seemed to have had enough of Richard Perle, the former US defence adviser who played a key role at Hollinger and Hollinger Digital, its now-defunct venture capital arm.

"I have been consulted about your American Express account which has been sent to us for settlement. It varies from Dollars 1,000 to Dollars 6,000 per month and there is no substantiation of any of the items which include a great many restaurants, groceries and other matters," Lord Black wrote in a letter to Mr Perle. . . .

"As I suspected there is a good deal of nest-feathering being conducted by Richard which I don't object to other than that there was some attempt to disguise it behind a good deal of dissembling and obfuscation," Lord Black wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.

"My instinct told me that (Perle and a partner at Trireme) were trying to smoke one past us."

Several directors of Hollinger International Inc. will come under strong criticism from the special committee of the firm's board when it releases its long-awaited report today into alleged wrongdoing among company executives.

Getting the most heat among the directors will be U.S. Defence department adviser Richard Perle, who will be singled out among the group, sources say.

"Perle is in a category by himself," said one source who is familiar with the contents of the report.

(Also note that "Dr. Death" Henry Kissinger is mentioned as connected to the Hollinger graft in the Globe & Mail piece, though he "will not receive the same kind of criticism" as Perle.)

Wow. The extent of Black's piracy boggles a mind already too accustomed to reading about corrupt, filthy-rich Conservatives, and then one must account for the fact that Perle is worse. To be scruptulously fair, though, and to really put matters in perspective, as doghouseriley reminds us in the comments to Seb's post, "Perle is the only administration official to actually resign over a conflict of interest. Meaning he's more ethical than everybody who's left."

A movie about Black, "Citizen Black", is to be soon released. Obviously, the title references "Citizen Kane", Orson Welles's classic based on early twentieth century press baron William Randolph Hearst. But whereas in film Citizen Kane's parting word was "Rosebud" (which was likely a reference to Hearst's lover Marion Davies's clit), "Citizen Black"'s whispered finale in real life may well be passed through the Dark Lord's parched mealy lips as he answers the jury with, "Perle".