Conrad Moffat Black, former newspaper tycoon, historian and celebrity is an interesting man, to say the least. The topic of his fall from professional, financial and social grace is legendary and is one that still elicits numerous newspaper columns and debates. The latest matter of interest in his lengthy protracted battle is his extraordinary memoir, A Matter of Principle. Written largely from his prison cell in Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida, the book is a compelling narrative of his tribulations. With his command of the English language, Lord Black is at once strikingly eloquent, acidly cynical, ferociously angry, and surprisingly funny. However, the book teeters at the edge of being nothing more than a self-glorified memoir, laced with attacks on detractors.
In the first three chapters of the book, Black charts his illustrious newspaper career, beginning from U.K.’s Telegraph to his crowning achievement – National Post. And in between his tales of rubbing shoulders with the powerful, he offers his take on world affairs, yet almost ironically maintains that he has never exercised his power to sway public policy. He also spares a page-and-half to rant on Jean Chrétien for opposing his proposed dual citizenship (Black was to be inducted into the British House of Lords). Near the end of Chapter three, the readers are also introduced to some of Black’s questionable activities - the sale of Hollinger Inc.’s newspaper properties to CanWest, and the resultant non-compete payments. Chapter four marks the beginning of Black’s misfortune as he describes the investigation by Hollinger’s audit committee into the company’s funds. The Hollinger board, summarized by Black in painfully boring detail, ultimately dismisses him as CEO and charges him of accepting unauthorized non-compete payments from companies buying newspapers from Hollinger. The next three chapters explore Black’s tarnished public image and dwindling personal wealth as he is relieved of all directorships and is permanently ousted from Hollinger International. In Chapter 7, Black is charged with new S.E.C. civil infractions following the release of “A Corporate Kleptocracy”, a report (by Richard Breeeden) on Hollinger’s practices. The momentum picks up again at the conclusion of chapter 9, as Black recounts being secretly videotaped while clearing out his Toronto offices; his actions land him with charges of obstruction of justice. Over the next four chapters, Black recounts his trial process and ends his story with the final hearing in Chicago that found him guilty.
One of the first weaknesses a keen reader will spot is that Black struggles to find an appropriate voice in the two hundred pages of the book. He attempts at a conversational tone, but comes off as oddly detached. The lack of a definitive theme is also due to Black’s breezy narrative that dashes from one key life event to the next. He jumps from his university days, to advising the Prime Minister of Britain, to the 1996 London bombings. Though enjoyable, these are only longing reminiscences of an imprisoned man, rather than key elements of his harrowing journey that forms the remainder of the book. In fact, it is only in page 269 that readers see Black defending the principles he alludes to in the book’s title. That being said, these sundry recollections offer readers a respite from detailed corporate machinations, which are also present in the first two hundred pages of the book. Black risks losing his readers when he delves into corporate debt reorganizations and share buy-backs that are both boring and confusing to the non-business mind. Hence, the narrative remains almost disjointed in the first third of the book, until Black is stripped of his title at Hollinger International, setting in motion the events that form the bulk of the book.
The biggest flaw in the book is Black’s unmistakable bias, as he categorizes individuals...