The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog


How Conrad Black poped

The ex-Telegraph owner on his road to Rome

The disgraced former newspaper proprietor Conrad Black has written an interesting piece for the new issue of the Catholic Herald about his "snail's pace" journey to Rome. It is extremely lengthy, and goes into more detail about Canadian (specifically Québecquois) Catholicism than most would think strictly necessary. Still, he is an expansive and learned writer, and perhaps one shouldn't begrudge the ex-Telegraph owner a little latitude from one paper in which he is still a "major shareholder", as it says at the end of his piece.

There is a sprinkling of witticisms -- I liked "The Lord is my shepherd, even in Palm Beach". But one passage caught my eye as having possible relevance to Black's long stewardship of the Telegraph papers:

I saw the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec, and later in most other places, as fiercely dedicated to the kingdom of God, resistant to opportunistic fads, concerned to modernise without eroding faith, armed with intellectual arguments quite equal, at the least, to those of their secular opponents or rivals.

The noticeable change after Black took over the group in 1986 was the introduction of a more ideological tone. The lines on Northern Ireland, Israel, abortion and the proper meaning of Conservatism all became more unbending, especially after the 1995 appointment as Daily Telegraph editor of Black's fellow Catholic convert, Charles Moore. Nothing like the zeal of . . . etc.

The papers were still homes of fine writing and journalists (I myself had my first contract at the Sunday Telegraph in the mid-1990s, although that is entirely coincidental to my praise) but the old, broad-church, more accommodating approach -- more Anglican, one might say -- was gradually squeezed out, and something rather civilised was lost. One can certainly see a connection between Black's preference for a faith he saw as "fiercely dedicated" and "resistant to fads" and his distinctly brisk political views.That said, I'm afraid I must also point out Black's amusing, if rather cutting, comments about the foundation of the Church of England.

As a nominal Anglican, I had always had some problems with Henry VIII as a religious leader. That he apostatised to facilitate marriage with a woman whom he soon beheaded on false charges of adultery, seized the monasteries to finance his wars in France, and required his puppet parliament to give him back the title "Defender of the Faith" (still on the Canadian coinage in honour of the present Queen) that the pope had given him in recognition of a canonical paper Erasmus had ghost-written for him, never filled me with confidence in the legitimacy of the Church of England.

As someone who spent much time as a child in Anglican cathedrals and churches fully conscious that they had once been Catholic buildings, I find myself nodding in agreement -- though Anglicans tend to look rather wounded if you make the point Black does here. So, in general, I don't.