Monday, 26 February 2007

Friends, Foes, and Shakespearean Drama in Canadian Media

Like a lot of other Canadians I read Margaret Wente’s column in The Globe and Mail at least semi-regularly, and again as is common with many other Canadians I find what she writes to be problematic to say the least. I won’t get into why as it would take much more time than I ever want to devote to Wente’s work. If you’d like to read that sort of thing, Tyrone Nicholas of Wente Watch has done quite a good job of critiquing Wente’s columns. Unfortunately Nicholas has decided he will no longer be updating his useful blog, but its archive is still accessible, and he links to other Wente critics on his sidebar.

What I wish to discuss here has to do with the particular nature of Wente’s running commentary on Conrad Black’s legal woes — and not incidentally, on his wife, Barbara Amiel Black. The latest of Wente’s columns on this topic was published this past Saturday and can be found here.

I have to admit I’ve been keeping tabs on the Conrad Black trial drama with something resembling avidity myself. To someone who works in publishing or media in Canada (and especially in Toronto), this story is catnip. For those of you who aren’t Canadian and/or media junkies, Black was a huge media figure here, and internationally, for many years. Black began buying small Canadian papers in the sixties and by the nineties his conglomerate Hollinger International controlled 60 percent of Canadian newspaper titles, as well as hundreds of daily papers in the United States, England, Australia and Israel. Hollinger’s holdings are no longer nearly so extensive, and Black is not its CEO any more, but at the height of his involvement in media, he was the third-largest newspaper publisher in the world. He is perhaps best known in Canada for having founded The National Post (though he no longer owns it), and he has also written biographies on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Maurice Duplessis as well as his own autobiography. He’s also known: for cutting jobs at any media outlet he owned; for his extreme right-wing beliefs, (i.e., Canada should dismantle its universal health care system and its sovereignty to become part of the U.S.); for his marriage to Barbara Amiel Black, a well-known Canadian journalist and columnist; for giving up his Canadian citizenship in order to be inducted into Britain’s House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour; and for many other telling biographical details such as the fact that as a teenager he was expelled from Toronto’s Upper Canada College for selling exam papers to his classmates.

Conrad Black’s current legal difficulties include the twelve counts of criminal behaviour for which he has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The counts include mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice, and money laundering and relate to his alleged appropriation of millions of dollars from Hollinger International’s funds. Black is facing a maximum 95-year jail sentence if convicted on all charges. His U.S. criminal trial is set to begin on March 5, 2007. And I won’t even get into describing the criminal prosecution he faces in Canada once the U.S. criminal courts are finished with him, or the several massive civil suits also lodged against him.

Perhaps even if you had never heard of Conrad Black before you read what I have written here, you have begun to see why Canadian media columnists — so many of whom have had dealings, pleasant or unpleasant, with Black — are so willing to discourse about the man’s legal battles, and about the man himself. Laying off journalists never makes for good press ten or twenty years down the road, but even to those without any personal grudge against Black, he and his legal difficulties are a meaty topic. This story has it all: hubris, well-known figures who have long raised much ire, business dealings on the grand scale, colossal sums of money, possible corruption, epic court battles, a beautiful and staggeringly extravagant wife, Black’s purple prose and pontificating, and plot developments such as Black’s caught-on-tape removal of twelve boxes of files from the Toronto headquarters of Hollinger Inc. (after an Ontario court order barred Black from removing documents from the Hollinger offices). Shakespearean plays have been based on less.

All this is a long preface to my saying that I don’t entirely blame Margaret Wente for writing about the Blacks the way she does. It's a story a Canadian columnist would naturally write about. And one could certainly argue that it's better for Wente to write about this than about global warming or Iraq, given her irresponsible coverage of those topics. But what I do wish to address is the personal dimension to Wente's repeated returns to this topic, which seems to have a certain viciousness beyond anything in other articles about the Blacks, even though so many journalists also know them.

Wente does freely admit that she is acquainted with both the Blacks. She was Conrad Black’s boss when he wrote a column for a publication she then edited, and she has sheepishly admitted that he managed to charm and/or railroad her into giving him the raise that would make him the highest-paid columnist in Canada. (The raise he got would have been less than pocket change to Black; he just couldn’t stomach being Canada's second-highest paid columnist.) In a past column she described the time she went out to lunch with the Blacks over a decade ago. According to Wente, the Blacks arrived in a limo and Barbara Amiel Black complained in her newly acquired (or reacquired) English accent of how petty and small-minded Canadians are.

In this latest column Wente writes that Conrad Black is supremely confident he will be found innocent of wrongdoing and allows that he may in fact walk away from this trial as he says he will. As she writes, “Flying around on corporate jets, being a pompous windbag, dressing up like Cardinal Richelieu, and having a wife who says her extravagance knows no bounds” are not crimes. “Having lapdogs as directors is no crime either. The fact that the chairman of your executive committee frequently signed important documents without reading them, and that you made sizable investments in his company, is not enough to put you behind bars.” But Wente concludes that if Conrad Black takes the stand in his own defense, he may seal his own conviction by presenting himself badly. Wente comments, “For a man who has spent a lifetime in the spotlight, Mr. Black seems astonishingly un-self-aware. He has sometimes shown a remarkable inability to read an audience, or see himself as others do. He seems unable to grasp that fair-minded people might not think as well of him as he does, and that not everyone is won over by his brilliance and erudition.”

In this column, Wente also manages to sneak in a not really relevant and extremely unflattering description of Barbara Amiel Black by describing a notice of libel from Conrad Black. According to Wente, “The notice states that contrary to the malicious accusations in a certain recent book about them, the Plaintiff's wife is not a grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill, domineering, vulgar, obsessively materialistic harridan.” I suppose Wente could technically defend this with a, “But I didn’t say Barbara was shrill or slatternly or a harridan! I said Black or his lawyers said she wasn’t!”

When you read the column I have linked to, if you’ve read the several past columns on the Blacks, do you get the sense of a very personal enmity that I get? I could criticize Margaret Wente for the lip-smacking enjoyment so evident in every one of her columns pertaining to the Blacks, but then in all fairness I’d have to say I read them with unseemly pleasure myself, and I know I’m not the only one. I could say she isn’t making the most responsible use of a national media platform, but it’s also true that the Globe editors wouldn’t allow it if it weren’t being read. We get the media we deserve.

So I will just say is that self-awareness is an excellent thing, and that Conrad Black isn’t the only person who could use more of it. Yes, Conrad Black needs to realize (among other things) that if he opines that Canada should become part of the U.S. and has renounced his Canadian citizenship to for the sake of wearing ermine, he may not be taken seriously when (now that it would be to his advantage legally) he calls himself a “demonstrative Canadian flag waver” and asks if he can have his citizenship back, please. And yes, Barbara Amiel Black needs to understand that if she writes in Maclean’s that Canada can’t afford universal health care or a minimum wage but should better support its national ballet company, and then appears in Vogue wearing an $11,000 dress, she may raise some hackles among even the noble and most broadminded of Canadians.

And no, I'm not done. Wente would benefit from increased self-awareness as well. I’m going to assume the fact that she was described as “a friend of Amiel’s” in this Guardian article was a touchingly naive mistake on the part of the Guardian. However, my jaw did drop when, in a Globe and Mail column written sometime back about Barbara Amiel Black’s snobbish disregard of people from her past, Wente supported this characterization by telling the story of how, upon meeting Amiel Black at a party, Wente offered to shake hands in greeting, only to see Amiel Black turn silently away from her outstretched hand.

How could Wente possibly expect Amiel Black to want to be friendly at this point? Frankly, given Wente’s gleeful commentary on the Blacks’ legal problems, dissection of Amiel Black’s outrageous spending habits, descriptions of Amiel Black as volatile, and repeated speculations that Barbara Amiel Black will leave her husband, I thought Amiel Black showed admirable restraint, and even dignity, in only cutting Wente in the social sense of the word.

If Wente continues to skewer the Blacks in The Globe and Mail, she should be honest with herself and with the rest of us about the personal nature of her actions and its consequences. Perhaps this self-examination will lead her to conclude she needs to leave the topic alone. Perhaps it will only mean a fuller disclosure about the nature of her relationships with the Blacks and her motivations in writing about them, because readers have a right to know about the conflict of interests inherent in a writer’s work. Wente will have to decide these things for herslef. But at the very least, if Margaret Wente has chosen to gloat in the national media over the Blacks’ failings and problems, she should know better than expect them to want to be friends with her.

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