Hollinger’s Board Meetings Remain A Classic Case Of Bad Entertainment As Financial News

stockholdrsmThe stockholders meeting has always been Hollinger’s annual contribution to vaudeville. This is Conrad Black, who quite easily could take over the roles filled by Sir John Gielgud, and perhaps has missed his true calling. Dutiful, dull lawyers get up to “nominate” 16 directors who naturally are opposed by nothing but silence. Accountants who look like accountants get up and recommend the books be passed.

But all wait for Conrad. It is worthwhile. He and his wife, magnificent in a marigold-yellow suit above magnificent gams and spike heels, saunter towards their seats, the feverish TV cameramen backing on their knees. It is an entrance worthy of Caesar and Cleopatra. The rapture, amidst the pinstripes, is entrancing.

Conrad is at his most droll. “The program states I am to call this meeting to order, though I find the whole concept to be offensive.” He allows to the some 150 inmates that “I have a few remarks to inflict on you.”

Things are going swell, is the essential message — his Daily Telegraph in London at its most profitable point in history, losses at his National Post “declining steeply” with a pledge to be breaking even by the fourth quarter.

Most interesting, despite Conrad’s verbal sense of humour, is the drollery he displays in the back end of the 94-page annual report. He is celebrated, of course, for his collection of toy soldiers wherein he can re-create every one of Napoleon’s major battles. His report is a collection of prominent names of the universe — directors and advisers of his various subsidiaries, Hollinger International, Hollinger Canadian etc. — he seems to have rounded up everyone but the Pope.

There is Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. The Right Hon. the Viscount Cranborne, former leader of the opposition of the House of Lords (hello there, PMO). Dr. Giovanni Agnelli, head of Fiat. William F. Buckley Jr. The Hon. Newt Gingrich. Paul Volcker, former head of the Federal Reserve Bank.

You want names? The Lord King of Wartnaby. Bob Strauss, the No. 1 lobbyist in Washington. George F. Will. Marie-Josee Kravis, main squeeze of Wall Street financier Henry Kravis. The Lord Weidenfeld of Chelsea, former good friend of Mrs. Black.

His “senior international advisers”? The Right Hon. the Baroness Thatcher. Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Henry Kissinger. The Hon. Zbigniew Brzezinski of Washington fame.

Conrad can be forgiven all this hubris because of his wit. Anyone who can make a shareholders’ meeting fun can be forgiven almost anything. When a 16-year veteran of the Herald rose to give a lengthy and civil dissertation, Conrad asked her to step back a bit from her floor microphone, and added: “This is an acoustical interruption, not a tactical one.”

When he spotted a familiar face among questioners, he sighed. “Oh Bob, nice to see you again. This is going to take some time I take it.” When shareholder Bob, a regular feature at these gatherings, went through 20 minutes of well-reasoned complaints on three specific points, Conrad replied, “If nostalgia can reward me, I’m trying to recall your first point.”

One of this scribbler’s many failures in life was, while working in Washington, taking up the Smithsonian Institution‘s idea for a five- part lecture series on how Washington looks to an outsider. I would deliver the first lecture, then introduce four other speakers of my choice.

Conrad, then just starting his career in London, was completely unknown in Washington circles and I asked if he would be interested, knowing he is the only person in the world with a larger vocabulary than Buckley Jr. (now on his payroll).

He said he would be delighted, since he wanted to kill from the platform a certain too-leftish American correspondent for the London Observer. Alas, the Smithsonian in nervousness cancelled the whole series, fearing it would be anti-American. It is the last mistake I have made in my life.

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