Melanie Phillips

20 November 2003

An all-too British rubbing of hands

Published in: Wall Street Journal

Share |

The fall of Conrad Black is being received in Britain with almost as much glee as the defeat of his hero Napoleon at Waterloo. Acres of newspaper columns have been devoted not only to a detailed analysis of the imbroglio at his company Hollinger regarding non-compete payments that were not disclosed to Hollinger's board, but also a gloating rehearsal of his personal history, character, sayings and lifestyle.

Of course, it is natural that a story about possible substantial corporate error or (for those who want to believe the worst) corruption should be a big news event. And there are other obvious reasons why the British media has got over-excited about this one. The possible sale of the Conservative-supporting Daily and Sunday Telegraph (not to mention the Spectator magazine) has serious implications for the balance of political support across the media spectrum. Papers in rival newspaper empires - some of whose proprietors are licking their lips over the prospect of the Hollinger-owned Telegraph group falling into their laps - have an obvious vested interest in such a story. Nevertheless, there is more than a whiff of something else steaming pungently from this welter of coverage. For it goes beyond appropriate disapproval of corporate wrong-doing (if, indeed, that is what has taken place). Much of it has a hand-rubbing tone, as if to express deep satisfaction that Lord Black has got his come-uppance at last. This finds clearest expression not just in the repeated references to his allegedly overbearing character - he was described in the Guardian as 'bullying, bombastic, verbose and vain' - but to his Canadian origins and his controversial elevation to the House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour.

What all this reflects is a combination of prejudices: old-fashioned British snobbery, resentment at a perceived 'foreign' carpet-bagger, and the perception that Lord Black used his newspapers to push political views which were themselves viewed as 'foreign' or in other ways suspect by a media dominated by what Donald Rumsfeld might call 'old Europe' attitudes.

Snobbery and suspicion of 'foreigners' are intimately linked in a country where the notion of Britishness is still bound up with breeding. It has surfaced in headlines such as 'Newspaper mogul who loved the life of a lord' in the Times, over a picture of Lord Black and his wife, the journalist Barbara Amiel, arriving at a fancy-dress party attired as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie-Antoinette. That, along with the gleeful descriptions of his many mansions, his executive jets and his fleet of limousines, just about says it all.

For Lord Black is seen as the foreign parvenu, the jumped-up vulgarian whose elevation to the peerage was the storming of the innermost citadel of the British establishment, the House of Lords, or an alien invader who had ideas far above his station. His way of life, globe-hopping between his various residences in different continents, made him easy to portray as someone with no investment in or commitment to Britain.

The fact that he was already a British citizen cut no ice with those for whom his very desire to be accepted into the establishment served as proof of his unfitness to be a member. Not only did he control an important slice of British culture; he committed the far greater sin of presuming to become a player in the political scene, using his newspaper ownership to gain access to politicians, intellectuals and others of influence in order to give wide currency to his opinions.

The forcefulness of his views, moreover, fuelled the further charge that he tells his editors what line to take. Of course, none of us can know what actually takes place in the private conversations between a proprietor and his editors. Much of this charge, however, is clearly fuelled by a visceral hostility towards the actual position the Telegraph papers have taken - strongly pro-America, supportive of the war on terror and of regime change in Iraq, pro-Israel and against the European Union.

Both Charles Moore - until very recently the Daily Telegraph editor - and Dominic Lawson, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, share these views. There would have been no need for Lord Black to have imposed this agenda upon them. True, Sir Max Hastings, a former Daily Telegraph editor, did not endorse this vision and has recorded an uncomfortable, adversarial relationship with a proprietor who was often on his back. But the fact remains that Sir Max edited the Telegraph for no fewer than ten years before he voluntarily stepped down.

Since then, Lord Black has continued to disagree from time to time with what his publications have printed. But his style is to bring the argument out into the open by - somewhat comically - firing off letters to his own papers to take issue with what they have said. In doing so, he actually tries to observe some kind of proprietorial distance - for which he has received no credit. On the other hand, after one such letter savaging the BBC following the affair of the dead weapons scientist David Kelly, the Telegraph editorial line - which previously had been much harder on the government than on the BBC - changed perceptibly.

For journalists, however, the only proper proprietorial behaviour is never to express a view on any political matter at all, since any such utterance constitutes a degree of pressure. To that extent, Lord Black - with his pugnacious approach - is certainly far from ideal. Nevertheless, the claim that he somehow forced the Telegraph titles to embrace a set of wildly extreme positions mainly reflects the now widespread and immensely troubling perception within Britain that a robust defence of western values is somehow 'extreme'.

This view was summed up by the former Sunday Telegraph editor Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, who wrote that the Telegraph has become an 'American-propaganda and Israel-propaganda sheet', reflecting a 'neo-conservative, right-wing philosophy which is very much an American phenomenon'.

Indeed, it is his papers' staunch defence of Israel which has perhaps given the hostility to Lord Black its most distasteful edge - not least through the frequent attacks upon Barbara Amiel for writing in the Telegraph about Israel's predicament, which is considered intolerable not just because she is the proprietor's wife but, far worse, because she is a Jew.

That kind of snobbish, disdainful, anti-American, anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish philosophy lying behind the general triumphalism over the humbling of Lord Black is -- distressingly -- very much a British phenomenon.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie