BOB GARFIELD: Throughout the late '80s and '90s, media mogul Conrad Black bought up more newspapers than anyone in history. In three years alone, he acquired more than 300 titles including the Chicago Sun-Times, the UK's Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post. Black acquired struggling papers that were traditionally conservative, and those that were not, he re-invented to reflect his political bias. He also became a British citizen, joined the House of Lords and became a fixture of British high society. Now the world's third largest media mogul has been dethroned. Lord Conrad was charged this week with misallocating funds and was forced to step down as CEO of the company he created, Hollinger, Inc. Richard Siklos is a financial reporter for the Sunday Telegraph, and in 1997 he wrote a biography of Black. He is currently reporting from Vietnam, and he joined us to talk about Black from Hanoi. Briefly explain the circumstances behind this current scandal.
RICHARD SIKLOS: It's a combination of the pressure on Black's company from unhappy American shareholders who are concerned about the, the sums that he and his executives have been paid over the last few years while the company, from a stock point of view, has not performed particularly well. You know, he's always contended that he did nothing wrong. He did appoint a special committee of his board to look into these allegations for the investors who were unhappy, and then as a result of that investigation, they said that they had unearthed 32 and a half million dollars in what they called unauthorized payments, and that's the, the shoe that dropped.
BOB GARFIELD:Now weirdly, Lord Conrad is staying on with Hollinger, at least for the time being as a non-executive chairman. That strikes me as odd for somebody who has allegedly, at least, raided the cookie jar. How did he ever cut that deal?
RICHARD SIKLOS: He's maintaining his complete innocence and that this was all some kind of misunderstanding, so for now, I guess the board of Hollinger and the special committees, you know, created this scandal by unearthing it, is giving him the benefit of the doubt. Clearly the, the board is, is not under his control any more, and now he's in a non-executive position.
BOB GARFIELD:Lord Conrad didn't go into this exactly as a sympathetic figure. He made a reputation as a ruthless cost-cutter, slashing jobs at this new acquisitions, or as he put it, "drowning the kittens." He isn't a big fan of journalism as it's currently practiced, is he?
RICHARD SIKLOS: Well he's always been a critic of journalists who take different ideological view from him or what he considers sloppy journalism. He had a track record of, of libel suits against various journalists, although he hasn't really done that in recent years so much. So I wouldn't say that as a blanket statement that he dislikes journalists, but he likes the ones he likes and doesn't like the oth-- [LAUGHS] others.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Black is famously a political conservative. Do all his papers cleave to the same conservative viewpoint?
RICHARD SIKLOS:He definitely turned the Jerusalem Post, which he bought in the early '90s, from the left to the right, to put it simply. In Canada, when he owned the National Post which is now--owned by CanWest, it was definitely conceived as setting the right wing agenda for the country. In the UK, the Telegraph has been the, traditionally the paper of the Tory Party, and he's been viewed as hardening its right wing editorial view, and he's been unabashedly pro-American.
BOB GARFIELD:Fifteen or 20 years ago, Conrad Black was a sort of mirror image of Rupert Murdoch. They were both wildly acquisitive, picking up properties, left and right, but they've clearly taken very different directions. Murdoch has continued to expand his media empire, and Lord Conrad Black has cut back on everything but I guess what he would regard as his crown jewels, especially the Sun-Times and the Daily Telegraph. Why do you think he took a different direction? Is it that he just desired to own the Telegraph and everything else was secondary, or could he not compete at that level?
RICHARD SIKLOS: I would say a, a combination of both, and you know, he himself admitted to me back when I wrote my book that he did not see himself as the risk-taking equivalent of a Murdoch. I think he was looking for a comfortable level of moguldom where he could do other things. I mean a guy like Murdoch, from my understanding, is 18 hours a day and constantly in touch with every branch of his empire, whereas Black the last few years, from what I've heard, you know he's written this book on FDR. He's been in the House of Lords, and you know, apparently just isn't quite that big a presence in, in his office any more.
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHS] A comfortable level of moguldom. [LAUGHS] Do you think Murdoch could jump in to pick up the pieces of what is left of the Hollinger empire?
RICHARD SIKLOS: I think he would have to look at the Telegraph, because the Telegraph and the Times are the Coke and Pepsi of quality national broadsheet papers in the UK. A lot of people think even for somebody of Rupert's remarkable political connections, that he would have an impossible time trying to combine both papers. But I guess you could never count Murdoch out.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Richard. Well thank you very much for joining us.
RICHARD SIKLOS: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard Siklos is a financial columnist for the Sunday Telegraph in London.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next up, how a national tragedy changed TV news, and why Vincente Fox pulled the plug on Mexican cinema.
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