Should we blame it all on Conrad Black?

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Blame Conrad Black. It’s all his fault. Every single media woe. Bankruptcies. Declining circulation. The public’s lack of trust. Everything.

We were reminded of this “fact” in an Associated Press story last week about the Sun-Times Media bankruptcy: “Sun-Times Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, citing $479 million in assets and $801 million in debt. Besides factors plaguing newspapers nationwide, the company owes as much as $608 million in back taxes and penalties related to the business practices of former owner Conrad Black, who is serving a prison sentence for siphoning millions of dollars from the company.”

And let’s not forget Conrad forced the Aspers to pay too much for his chain of Canadian newspapers, causing the current financial mess at Canwest.

Not to mention how he politicized the former Southam chain, turning mushy right-liberal papers with broad appeal into hard right, Fraser-Institute-promoting rags that preached to the converted and caused everyone else to dump their subscriptions. No wonder readers think newspapers have an agenda other than reporting the news.

Hell, even the current defined benefit pension crisis can be traced back to certain accounting manoeuvres pioneered during the biographer’s days as owner of Dominion Stores.

It’s all Conrad Black’s fault.

This would be believable, but for the fact that the madness took place everywhere, not just the places where the kid who was expelled from Upper Canada College left his fingerprints. Excess was practiced and celebrated in every corner of contemporary capitalism.

Greed was good, hundred million dollar bonuses were “earned” by purveyors of opaque financial instruments and the media marveled at $25 million apartments. Where did the money come from?

The truth is Conrad was a poster boy for an economic and political system that was not too long ago heralded for its supposed successes but is now tainted by its excesses and readily apparent failures.

He relished in the limelight, but the downside of his fame and fortune is that when the system came looking for scapegoats Baron Black of Crossharbour was more than suitable. Sure, the man who crushed the noble Calgary Herald strikers got what he deserved. But decent people should also feel a little sympathy for a guy who just did what the system encouraged any successful businessman to do: Take personal advantage, screw the workers and enjoy the party while it lasts.

Is Conrad Black to blame? Or should we blame the system?

If it’s all Conrad’s fault, then the system is left off the hook and nothing will change. Perhaps that’s the real reason for the prison cell.


Gary Engler is vice-president of Local 2000 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents more than 2500 members who work in the printing and newspaper industries in British Columbia.

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