The mystery of the silent commentators

Conrad Black, worth at least £136m, is one of Britain's 250 richest people. He owns news-papers in North America, Israel and Britain, including the Daily Telegraph and its Sunday sister. Two years ago, he was elevated to the House of Lords. Now it has emerged that he and some of his fellow executives at Hollinger International (through which, by virtue of a 73 per cent shareholding, he owns his papers) secretly received $15.6m that had not been authorised by the Hollinger board. A further $16.6m was paid to another company controlled by Lord Black. The money came from buyers of Hollinger's North American papers, many of which have been sold in recent years, in return for assurances that neither Hollinger nor its executives would launch competing publications. Last year Hollinger told the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US regulatory body, that these "non-compete" fees (some others were paid openly) were a condition of the sale. They were not. The regulator was also told falsely that the Hollinger board had approved them.

When a junior employee removes money from a company without authorisation - by dipping into the petty cash, say - it is called theft. When a middle-ranking executive hides payments to himself, it is called fraud. No doubt the rules are different for company directors (they are certainly more opaque) and it must be emphasised that no criminal charges have been brought against Lord Black and his colleagues, that they have agreed to pay the money back to Hollinger and that the regulator is still investigating. But you would expect this to be a big story in all newspapers - particularly when one shareholder asks "how much money has to leave the company before somebody calls the cops?" while another accuses Lord Black of having "his hand in the cookie jar" - and that there would be plentiful analysis and comment, perhaps with little homilies from columnists about hubris, greed, rich men and needles, and declining standards of behaviour. Not so. Readers of most papers (the Guardian is the main exception) may well be unaware that anything serious has happened. It is understandable that the Telegraph publishes only brief statements. But why should the Times headline say "Telegraph boss will repay £4m to save his empire", as though it were some philanthropic gesture? Why should the Daily Mail offer just a few impenetrable words in its City pages?

One answer is that, after six years of new Labour, the affairs of the Tory-supporting Telegraph (now in effect for sale) are of little interest. Another is that some of Lord Black's rivals intend to bid for his papers, and do not wish to damage their chances by inappropriate comment. But there is something else. Big newspapers tend to be wary of drawing attention to the failings of the rich and powerful, and particularly those of press proprietors, who have an unwritten agreement to go easy on one another. Safer by far to put the boot into struggling migrants from Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo, or into unemployed parents trying to raise five or six children, when such people receive (sometimes quite legitimately) state payments of a few hundred pounds a week. The victims of corporate misbehaviour, usually described vaguely as "shareholders", are not necessarily other rich people, but more probably ordinary folk who hold pensions, life assurance and small investments. But again, it is easier for the press to blame any decline in such assets on Gordon Brown.

Journalists are wise to be cautious. Even if Lord Black is guilty of serious wrongdoing, he could remain rich and powerful. Take the case of Percy Barnevik, former chief executive of ABB, the European engineering giant. He received a £61m pension payment, but omitted to get board approval. ABB later needed emergency injections of capital. Mr Barnevik, far from being hissed at in polite business circles, went unpunished and kept more than half his gains. He also got the chairmanship of another big company, AstraZeneca. Lord Black himself, though he has resigned as Hollinger's chief executive, remains its non-executive chairman.

Lord Black has a formidable reputation for seeing off opponents. He has talked of "pinko" journalists and their "liberal mendacity". He has described the growth of corporate governance - whereby minority shareholders expect a say in how a company is run - as a fad. He has accused the Guardian, which has carefully reported Hollinger's financial difficulties, of pursuing a vendetta against him. But the lesson we should take from Conrad Black is the same as that from the late Robert Maxwell: tycoons who bluster and intimidate employees, advisers or curious journalists don't just do it for sadistic pleasure. They usually have something to hide.

Socialism and the rugby scrum

Some leftists may wonder why Richard Caborn, the minister recalled from the rugby union World Cup in Australia to support the government in a vote on foundation hospitals, should be following that sport at all. Isn't football the workers' game and rugby union one for toffs and reactionaries? Wrong. Though the players and supporters may not realise it, rugby union is by its nature socialist, because it puts a far higher premium on communal effort than does any other game. Scrums, rucks, mauls, line-outs - all require the individual to subordinate himself to co-operative endeavour. The grunting in the scrums echoes the grunting of workers in struggle. Commentators talk of "recycling" the ball. All this explains why New Zealand - home of the first welfare state - is so successful at the game for such a small country. It also explains why England under a Labour government win more matches than ever before.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the affair