Friday, February 20, 2004

On (not) Meeting With Conrad Black

Conrad Black and his relationship with various emanations of Hollinger Corp. are everywhere in the British papers and journals these days. It reminded me of the time I once phoned Conrad Black from Riyadh about five years ago after I had given some lectures there and was about to fly to London. I thought that phoning his London office from an exotic location might prove the key to tweaking his interest in a meeting - - I had tried, unsuccessfully to arrange meetings before from both Vancouver and Toronto. That attempt, alas, failed.

It is tough not being on the A list or perhaps even the B or C list (one doesn't know how many lists these very, very rich folks have) of such a person.

A few years earlier the Centre had tried to contact Jimmy Pattison, another one of these billionaire tycoons to try and arrange a meeting with him in Vancouver. We had the same resounding lack of success with him, or, rather, his gatekeeper, as I had with Lord Black. Perhaps if the Centre was Pentecostal and had projects related to trumpet playing (or other brass instruments) we might have had a chance with Pattison?

In both cases those employed to "gate keep" did a complete job and the drawbridges remained up. To this day neither I nor any of the Centre's fund-raising people have met Jimmy Pattison.

Only once did I meet Conrad Black - - after a talk he gave in Vancouver a few years ago.

During that witty and intelligent lunchtime address - - far and away the best lunchtime talk I have heard in many years, he spoke of his reasons for starting the National Post.

One phrase from that talk was particularly memorable (the quotation is from memory). Lord Black said that he had wanted "to introduce some other sounds into the hermetically-sealed echo chamber that was Canadian journalism." Brilliant and bang on. Jean Chretien's pettiness in refusing to allow Conrad Black the honours he was offered in the UK is just another example of the small-mindedness of Canadian politics and the centralized and unaccountable power of the Chretien PMO's office. Time will tell whether anything has changed under the new administration.

Once the National Post was launched, for a few years Canadians did not have to read every day the same kind of predictable one-sided commentary that dominated the Globe and Mail and have dominated so much of the CBC. It has been wisely noted that, as a general rule, when the Globe and Mail carries some conservative article you can just about guarantee that it is a lousy article. The number of friends of mine who have written excellent pieces that the Globe would not touch are legion. Not so the National Post, it gave a real voice to many who were, for years in the frozen wastes of Canada, voiceless. For that Lord Black has earned all our thanks.

Now it appears that Conrad Black is on the ropes. Many of the British papers are carrying stories about his business troubles and his wife, Barbara Amiel's, spending habits. Some stories suggest that her extravagance (over 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes for example - - at over $1,000 per pair and around 20 of the "Martha Stewart" Hermes bags at about $7,000 each - - and homes in all the expensive centres - - New York, Palm Beach -- the latter of which is on the market for 36 million) and his removal of large amounts of cash from his companies, led to his current problems. Who can say?

But one thing is clear. None of his money came to the Centre for Cultural Renewal in exchange for a tax receipt. I think, in part, this is because there is a real problem with being very, very rich. One never knows whether those who approach one are doing so for genuine reasons or for reasons only relating to ones' wealth. Like celebrity, wealth can be a tremendous disaster for the self and cuts one off from normal human exchange. Just look at the many rich and famous people whose lives implode because they cannot handle being themselves in a world where their images are larger than life.

Rich and famous people come, too readily, to believe their own propaganda or reputations and that can be a tremendous disability. Lord Black's wife, Barbara, is quoted as saying "my extravagance knows no bounds". Just as kings used to go about dressed as commoners many of today's rich and famous ought to spend more time doing their own research about what matters in the world and rely less on those "gate-keepers" who screen out the worthy things from their attention. Lord Black is reputed to have asked "since when is greed a crime?" He may have to find out the hard way.

Our fundraising has more or less given up on tycoons of the A list. Those on the B and C list have proven the most faithful in supporting the Centre and many other projects that rely on the generous and charitable support of individuals. One wonders how many charities, like us, depend on those less famous folks because the more famous ones are giving to the "safe bets?" and the less famous ones are the only ones with time to actually do the necessary research? I know that Banks, for example, will never give unless one represents Breast Cancer or some AIDS charity - -yawn.

It is a pity that so many of the very, very rich have become so very, very inaccessible.

Iain T. BensonĀ©