There's nothing so strange about Conrad

The disgraced <em>Telegraph</em> proprietor is an extraordinary figure - until you put him among his

He never stole my money and never invited me to any of his parties, so neither bitterness nor guilt prevents me enjoying Conrad Black's fate. I could only smile when the Daily Mail, in an uncharacteristic show of concern for a member of the criminal class, asked, "Will Conrad survive jail?" And I smiled again when Bruce Anderson, in the Independent, declared the tale a tragedy.

Let's save our tears. This is no tragedy, but another fine episode in the rich pageant that is British newspaper ownership - or rather, in a more scholarly vein, another case study for students of the odd psychology of those people who own our dailies and Sundays.

Black is an extraordinary figure, an accomplished biographer who (we are told) plays with toy ships in the bath, a brilliant deal-maker who spent a fortune on a holiday in Bora Bora without taking the trouble to find out it was the sort of place he would hate, a political thinker who couldn't tell other people's money from his own.

But in the company of his historical peers, from Robert Maxwell and Tiny Rowland to Lords Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, he isn't odd at all. Outright theft may be unusual, but folie de grandeur is almost the norm.

Beaverbrook, for example, so loved himself that when he gave the many women in his life birthday presents, it was always on his birthday and not theirs. Northcliffe was overjoyed when he tried on a hat of Napoleon's during a visit to France and found it fitted (or was furious that it didn't, according to another version).

Like most proprietors, Black is an outsider. Northcliffe and the first Lord Rothermere, the brothers who gave us the Mail and the Mirror, started as Anglo-Irish nobodies. Beaverbrook (owner of the Express) and Roy Thomson (Times and Sunday Times) were Canadians like Black. Maxwell (Mirror) was born a Czech and Rowland (Observer) a German, while the Astors (Observer and Times) were by background Americans and Tony O'Reilly (Independent) is Irish.

Of the British ones, many qualify as outsiders, too: Victor Matthews (Express) started out on building sites; Lords Kemsley (Sunday Times) and Camrose (Telegraph) were sons of a Welsh estate agent, while Richard Desmond (Express) and the Barclay brothers (Telegraph) are hardly in the metropolitan social mainstream.

Foreign or not, they usually craved titles, just as Black did. "What I want more than anything else in the world," declared Thomson as he left Canada, "is a knighthood." Like most of them, he got a peerage - though O'Reilly is still having to get by as Sir Tony.

Some wanted profit from their papers, though they brought differing levels of urgency and expertise to the endeavour, and a few simply fell in love with the product. Lord Hartwell (Telegraph) wrote: "I was always terribly shocked when other people ran their newspapers like biscuit factories, just to make money." And David Astor once told Neal Ascherson his aim was "to make the best newspaper you can, without going broke".

Black clearly cared about the Telegraph, but if one thing is now clear it is that he cared even more for money. What he also wanted - and here again he is in company with most of the famous proprietors - was influence, and yet, oddly, owning newspapers seems to deliver the illusion of power more than it does the reality.

Beaverbrook could never quite accept that he wasn't prime minister, and it was of him that Stanley Baldwin once remarked: "There is nothing more curious in modern evolution than the effect of an enormous fortune rapidly made, and control of newspapers of your own . . . It goes to the head like wine."

Lloyd George, speaking in the Commons, referred to Northcliffe as a victim of "diseased vanity" - and as he did so tapped the side of his head with his finger. Out in the street they used to joke: "Have you heard? The Prime Minister has resigned and Lord Northcliffe has sent for the King."

Lord Black of Crossharbour fits well into this crew, so well that his case draws attention to another proprietor who conspicuously does not fit: Rupert Murdoch. An outsider, yes, but both an acquisitive businessman and an artful newspaperman, with no title, no obvious trace of lunacy and a strong taste for influence. Scary.

Our chief consolation with Rupert must be that he is 76 and, as with all the rest of them (and indeed the rest of us too), there is one circulation war that in the end he cannot win.

A series on her own

Jane Felix-Brown has made news by marrying a Bin Laden, but she was already, it seems, a face-lifted, tattooed, white Muslim parish councillor of 51, with multiple sclerosis, whose five husbands included a Hell's Angel and an RAC patrolman. How did the reality TV people miss her?

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet