By Ean Higgins
He once strode the world stage like Citizen Kane, world leaders at his beck and call to answer to a media baron whose newspapers spanned the globe from Toronto and Chicago through London and Jerusalem to Sydney and Melbourne.
Now, his empire gone, his wealth decimated, and having emerged from 3 1/2 years in a US jail for fraud and obstruction of justice, Conrad Black yesterday told an Australian audience what he thought of the future of journalism and its impact on democracy.
Speaking in a panel discussion in Sydney as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Black was optimistic a new business model would emerge for newspapers, although they might not be printed on "chopped down trees".
But the Canadian-born Black was scathing of the US justice and penal system which put him away for crimes he still insists he did not commit, and of journalists who, he said, try to take big figures down because of their own jealousies.
Baron Black of Crossharbour, as he is known to some for the title bestowed on him in Britain in 2001, is on his first visit to Australia in more than a decade.
Two decades ago, Black had the world's third-largest English language media empire, Hollinger International.
He held a controlling stake in the Fairfax media conglomerate, along with Britain's The Daily Telegraph, The Jerusalem Post, Canada's National Post, and The Chicago Sun-Times.
In 2004, a shareholder-initiated prosecution of Black began in the US over $80 million in assets claimed to have been improperly taken or inappropriately spent by Black, which eventually led to his conviction and jailing, from which he emerged in May last year.
Black, 69, said he had been "prosecuted half to death" and the hard years appeared to have taken their toll; he walked slowly on the stage at a packed Sydney Opera House Concert Hall and sat down gingerly. But he still had his grand way with words.
He said of US whistleblower Edward Snowden's exposure of US surveillance that "anything that shakes the dangerous institutional arrogance" of the US government in how it treats its citizens was a good thing.
When it came to newspapers, Black said the move from print to digital offered opportunities to publishers if they focused on the core function of journalism — distilling the most critical and interesting news and providing first-class analysis.
At a time when the internet provided information overload, he said, "the editorial function has greater value than ever".
Publishers no longer needed newsprint, printing presses and physical distribution systems, so "the cost structure can be radically reduced".
Black was critical of what he said was a decline in the quality of journalism led by the "gotcha" style of expose. "I think the media do terrible damage to themselves in terms of credibility."
Black, who has railed against what he claims is a vendetta against him launched by competing media tycoons, finished with a dig at journalists, noting that in his day he had "employed many thousands" of them.
Because "nobody really cares about what they say and do", Black said, many journalists tried to bring down the rich and famous."They want to exercise their power, often in an egregious way."
This article was originallty published at The Australian