For a long time in the 1990s, there seemed to be only two kinds of print journalists in Canada: those who worked for Conrad Black and those who were going to work for Conrad Black.
Years before he was put on trial for tax fraud, racketeering and other charges, Black, through his Hollinger empire, controlled one of Canada's two national newspapers, a top newsmagazine and more than 60% of the country's community newspapers. He gave up his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to accept a peerage in the British House of Lords, becoming Lord Black of Crossharbour, but he was already the equivalent of Canadian royalty. More outspoken, more opinionated and certainly far richer than the typical Canuck, he seemed to enjoying being in the newspapers almost as much as he did publishing them.
Now Black, 62, awaits a Chicago jury's verdict on what prosecutors claim was a $60 million scheme to steal from Hollinger International. Back in his native land, Canadian coverage of the trial has illuminated just how large a shadow he still casts on the news-gathering profession. After all, some of the most prominent journalists covering the trial for the Canadian media including one on the witness stand owe much of their career success to the erudite man in the dock.
Several of the Canadian journalists filing stories from the Chicago courtroom have worked for Black or his wife, writer and socialite Barbara Amiel. Some are even friends. Take the case of Maclean's, the weekly newsmagazine. Its publisher and editor, Ken Whyte, who once ran the Hollinger flagship publications Saturday Night magazine and the National Post newspaper, testified for the defense. Whyte bolstered the defense's claim that Black's expensive parties, paid for in part by the company, were work related. Whyte's fidelity to his former employer was also stated outright. "I suppose I'm loyal to him," said Whyte, when questioned by prosecutor Julie Ruder. Whyte also told the court that a $100,000 bonus he received from Black after Black sold the Post was given "in recognition of our ongoing relationship."
During the trial, Maclean's coverage has been dominated by vigorous denunciations of the prosecution by columnist Mark Steyn, a personal friend of the Blacks. Instead of shying away from the appearance of conflict, Steyn positively revels in it. "Yesterday I was chit-chatting with Lord Black on the other side of the Chicago River far from the courthouse," began his Maclean's blog on June 8, reminding readers that his access to Black goes beyond the courthouse steps. In an e-mail interview with TIME, Whyte pointed out that Maclean's has published "stories and commentaries in addition to what Mark [Steyn] has produced including... the deliberations of a mock jury that argued for conviction." But when the verdict comes down, Maclean's readers are more likely to turn to Steyn's blog and column first; Steyn's photo appears in a banner on Maclean's website, with the billing "Mark Steyn covers the trial from opening statements to final verdict."
Maclean's is not the only publication whose writers have ties to the Blacks. The Globe and Mail newspaper columnist Christie Blatchford, who covered the trial's early weeks, worked for Black at the National Post and Amiel at the Toronto Sun. Then there are the articles written bythe Blacks: the National Post gave Black a column before his trial and ran excerpts from his biography of Richard Nixon, while Amiel has continued her longstanding column in where else Maclean's.
For media observers, the problematic issue is whether objective reporting is being compromised. "You get a sense that some of the reporters down there are listening awfully closely to Mr. Black's defense team," says Christopher Waddell, associate director of the Journalism School at Ottawa's Carleton University. Waddell points to articles suggesting that Donald Trump was about to testify in Black's defense. It didn't happen, "but meanwhile [the defense] got their story out there," he says.
So why are Canada's writers and editors embracing conflicts that publications traditionally go out of their way to avoid? To some observers, it's pure self interest. "What do they have to lose?" wrote journalist Allan Fotheringham in his syndicated column. "If Conrad wins, he says he will rebuild his empire. If that is the case, then those journalists have a chance to work for the great man again."
But a simpler answer may lie in that writers who have relationships with the couple are expected to produce juicier observations than those on the outside. Blatchford, who says she stopped covering the trial because she was bored, scoffed at the notion that she was part of Black's "retinue," as another columnist at the Globe and Mail implied. But Blatchford did acknowledge that her connections to Black and Amiel could be seen as a plus by editors or readers. "It gives it, in the wretched modern phrase, 'added value,'" she says. In a country that has produced few personalities of Conrad Black's proportions, perhaps that kind of value is just worth too much to sacrifice for the hope of objectivity.