On The Zoomer, his new weekly talk show for ZoomerMedia’s VisionTV, Conrad Black opines on politics, pot, and the American penal system. (And that was just the premiere episode!) We caught up with the country’s most notorious lord to discuss small-screen stardom, the quality of prison wine, and why even buffoonish mayors deserve respect from the media.
As a frequent print journalist, I was heartened to see your recent piece in the National Post titled “The newspapers strike back.”
I’m not responsible for the headline, but I do think newspapers as assets have been over-discounted. There is immense goodwill in the trademark of a famous newspaper, so the issue is how to make money off of that. I’m not suggesting they have figured it out [with the current system], but the fact is, no business in history has made money by giving its core product away. Newspapers are going to have to charge for [online] content, and they’re going to have to be better.
You mention that the role of print media is arguably more important than ever in terms of clearing through the muck.
The amount of choice in information and entertainment has become so immense. Even a very culturally absorbent person who spent all waking hours trying to keep informed wouldn’t be able to see everything, so the role of an editor is to come up with a digest of things and put it in a manageable format. I think where we’re going is designer packages. Individuals will specify areas of interest—politics, Canadian business, hockey, book reviews—which will then be highlighted in a packaged digest of news and entertainment.
I’m guessing that your digest wouldn’t include Miley Cyrus twerking updates.
If the photos were good, I would like it.
Investigative journalism had a bit of a heyday in Toronto over the summer. What’s your take on the coverage of the mayor’s, um, extracurriculars?
That was a disgrace. Just a smear job. The Globe and Mail saying that his family had this history of fraternization with criminal elements was based on his brother having socially encountered some drug dealers 20 years ago. It’s just horse manure. I’m no great apologist for the mayor, but the people elected him—let him do his job.
Do you feel like you have a particular sense of empathy for his situation, having spent time in the hot seat yourself?
My relations with the media are quite complicated [from] having been in that business, and it isn’t the same. They don’t portray me as a buffoon. No one calls me an embarrassing, egregious, bumptious person who makes a complete ass of himself in social gatherings, pinches women’s behinds, and is drunk in public.
But that is his behaviour…
What I’m saying is that it doesn’t give me any sense of community with him. I just don’t like seeing people picked on like that.
And what if I said that as a citizen I don’t like seeing my chief elected official behaving like that.
Well, I think that’s reasonable. His conduct is at times undignified for the office he holds.
Okay, let’s talk about the new career—Conrad Black as host of a chat show does seem a little incongruous. How did they talk you into it?
It was Moses [Znaimer]’s idea. He made me a very generous offer, which would answer your question [about how I was convinced]. Ten years of persecution hasn’t really affected my standard of living that much, but my net worth has declined, so I’m in rebuild mode at an age when most people are retiring. [He’s 69.]
Now that you’ve filmed a few episodes, how would you rate your performance?
I don’t watch myself on TV, so I can only go on what I appreciate while we tape it. I think I’m adequately fluid, but whether I come off as a sympathetic, likeable person to the viewer, I wouldn’t know.
Where do you see room for improvement?
You’re asking me to engage in self-criticism?
You don’t get to where you are without being able to self-reflect.
I know, but I don’t do it in public.
Fair enough. The Zoomer’s TV panel discussed the legalization of marijuana, but I don’t think we got your opinion.
My take is that all drugs, not just marijuana, should be legalized. The drug war is just a complete failure.
Since everyone has been coming clean on their personal pot history lately, I have to ask….
I have never touched any of it, but that’s irrelevant. I think you’ve got to legalize it all and then require the hard drug users to take treatment. Marijuana’s neither here nor there.
Speaking of intoxicants, you also had the great Ronnie Hawkins on your first episode and referenced some “horrifyingly liquefied evenings” that the two of you have shared. Can you elaborate?
We both had a lot to drink, that’s all. That was in the ’70s, right after I moved back here. You’d catch up with each other at one in the morning and things were somewhat out of hand.
I’ve heard that Ronnie used to bring out a shotgun at parties.
He talked about it, but he never brought it out in my presence. Look, everybody behaved themselves, we just got slightly…we couldn’t have passed a Breathalyzer, but we didn’t drive. Somebody drove us.
For your first “Talk Black” segment, you laid into the American judicial system. Do you consider that a personal issue?
I knew it was a wild and wooly system before I got tangled up in it, but I learned a lot more about how corrupt and unjust it is. Ninety-nine-point-five per cent conviction rate? Ninety-seven per cent convicted without a trial? Stalin didn’t have those numbers!
What’s the most outlandish rumour you heard about your time behind bars?
Before I went in I remember seeing stuff like, “Will this guy survive it? Everybody will gang rape him. How will he adjust going from Chardonnay to Kool-Aid?” Just rubbish.
So the prison wine was all right?
I don’t think it was, but I didn’t touch it. The night I arrived, my friend, the former don of the Genovese family, asked me if I wanted a cellphone or a bottle of whiskey. I said no [to his offer]. I’m fighting my battle with the system through the courts and I don’t want any disagreements with the Bureau of Prisons. Which is not to say I was Mr. Goody-Goody. I showed no deference and I never spoke to the warden.
Do you keep in touch with anyone you met behind bars?
Yeah, sure. A lot of my former students. [Black taught English and U.S. history to fellow inmates.] Some of them I helped to go to university; one I’m helping to get published. They’re not bad people, most of them. Some of them are scoundrels—amiable rascals who were either shafted like I was or made a mistake, but not one they should pay for with the rest of their lives.
Have you seen that TV show Orange Is the New Black?
No, I haven’t seen it. I have heard some of the women’s prisons are pretty rough stuff.
Hopefully I’ll never find out.
I’m sure you will not, although in the U.S. you never know. Nobody is safe.
A SELECTIVE TIMELINE
1966: Buys his first newspaper, the Eastern Townships Advertiser, for $500.
1976: Assumes joint control of his father’s holding company, which includes the future cornerstone of Black’s media empire, Hollinger.
1993: Newspaper empire now includes London’s Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun Times.
1998: Founds the National Post.
2001: Renounces Canadian citizenship to become a British lord.
2005: Indicted by U.S. government on fraud charges.
2008: Begins serving a six-and-a-half year sentence in a Florida prison.
2012: Released from prison after serving 42 months.