Quill and Quire

Richard Siklos

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Paint it black

Richard Siklos

Richard Siklos was 29 and already an accomplished eight-year veteran of the newspaper biz when I met him in August for drinks at an haute mode bar (“born in the age of excess,” Siklos says in the cab on the way there) across from Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Hotel in mid-town Manhattan. We’ve met to discuss his latest, and highest-profile, achievement, a biographical survey of Conrad Black’s ever-expanding press empire.

Albeit in different sectors of the print media business, Siklos’s early success could certainly be said to mirror his subject’s, although he bristles at the comparison.

Black is, in fact, very much present as we speak, insinuating himself into every aspect of the conversation. It seems impossible to talk about Siklos’s career without the conversation drifting into Black’s, or speak of Black’s without my mind drifting over to Siklos’s, making the connections Siklos balks at.

Over the three years Siklos worked on the book, he interviewed Black about 20 times, mostly on the phone, sometimes in person, never at his home. “He’s very private that way,” Siklos says.

“He was a good subject. He’d call me back, he answered all my questions, and sometimes spent a fair amount of time with me. You get him on the phone, and he likes to talk.”

Though the arrangement Siklos and Black came to – that Black would neither hinder nor go out of his way to help Siklos in writing the book – was amicable, Siklos got the distinct impression that Black was keeping track of his actions.

“I remember this particular time when Barbara Amiel [Black’s wife] wouldn’t speak to me – she just doesn’t give interviews on that subject. I was in the Daily Telegraph one day, and I had just interviewed her best friend Miriam Gross, and I was going up to see Black. It was a matter of going up two floors. Five minutes later I was in his office, and I walked in and he said, ‘So, you’ve been speaking with Miriam Gross.’”

Black had, of course, already been the subject of an early (1982) biography by Peter Newman, and had written his own autobiography in 1993, Conrad Black: A Life in Progress, begun (and completed in quick succession), as it happens, as a result of murmurings about Siklos’s book, and so Black could be understandably interested in which of his self-inflated balloons Siklos might burst.

“There’s a world of difference between biography and autobiography,” Siklos says.

Siklos entered Ryerson’s journalism program at the age of 18 in 1984, and by the time he was 21, he was working as a weekend reporter for The Globe and Mail. By the beginning of the next summer, he had a full-time job at Ontario’s London Free Press, and by the end of it, he was on staff at Toronto’s now-defunct Financial Times, not to be confused with the Financial Times of London, which, as it happens, is part owner (as is Black) of Toronto’s Financial Post, for which Siklos now works, on a six-year contract, as New York Bureau Chief, sharing offices with FT’s New York outpost.

The Financial Times was going through this amazing period under John Macfarlane,” Siklos recalls, referring to the Canadian paper and its editor, now editor of Toronto Life and partner in Macfarlane Walter & Ross. “They were trying a very interesting approach to journalism, which we hadn’t seen before, and haven’t seen since. Macfarlane described it as Rolling Stone meets The Wall Street Journal. It was a great training ground. I think it gave me creativity, let me be more creative right out of the gate, where I think a lot of journalists are in environments where their creativity is being suppressed all the time.”

This creativity is well contained in Shades of Black, however; no fictionalization for the sake of narrative – just a lot of research (a bibliography of 27 books, and 41 pages of footnotes) well structured into a readable, 447-page narrative. It is, in that way, very much a journalist’s book, based on interviews and gathered facts. You can only infer Siklos’s presence in the worlds he describes, populated by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild.

“Black has this idea that journalists are, as he puts it, ‘unspeakably envious of their subject,’” Siklos says, allowing Conrad back into the conversation. “Honest to God, when you write about wealthy business people every day, the satisfaction I derive from it has nothing to do with being close to the bank accounts of the rich and famous. I think if you think that way you’re just destined for a life of PR.

“I never delude myself that people are talking to me because they think I’m so interesting. I think one of the big mistakes journalists make is that they think they’re important because the people they interview are important.”

His work was, as it happens, interesting enough to earn him an Australia Fellowship for Canadian Journalism in 1992 which took him down under for two weeks retrospectively investigating Black’s 1991 takeover of Fairfax, one of Australia’s big print media conglomerates.

“I saw what a huge celebrity he was in Australia,” Siklos recalls of his book’s early gestation. “It became clear that Black was dead set on becoming a world player in newspapers, and I think that was very different from what people in Canada knew about him. He was also bidding for the Daily News in New York, and a month later he bought into Southam, and he was doing all this at a time when everybody else was having a lousy time in the media.”

Black lost the Daily News, got a healthy chunk of Southam (he now rotates chairmanships annually with his takeover competitor, Paul Desmarais), and Siklos got a book deal.

After he signed with Reed, he used his advance to return to Australia, go to England to take a look at the anchor of Black’s press empire, the Daily Telegraph (England’s largest circulation daily), and to Jerusalem, where he looked into another recent addition to Black’s kitty, the widely respected, traditionally left-wing Jerusalem Post, which under Black’s ownership took a sharp right-hand turn. All told, Siklos interviewed more than 200 people, some of them several times, speaking to every major player involved in any of Black’s press dealings, from heads of state (Brian Mulroney, Australian PM Paul Keating) to competitors (Rupert Murdoch, Paul Desmarais, Kerry Packer) to family and friends (his ex, Joanna Black, right-hand-man Dan Colson) and enemies (Andrew Knight, longtime editor of The Economist, ex-Black employee, who now heads up the Telegraph’s main competition, Murdoch’s London Times).

Although he describes himself as “not the world’s most organized person,” Siklos managed to yoke these heterogeneous elements together and plough out a picture of Black the press baron of potential interest to both layman and investment banker (not to mention the fledgling press barons populating our streets and schools).

He credits the machinery.

“I’d go through stacks and stacks of documents and build up a little database,” Siklos says. “At first I wrote using transcripts, but after a while, I got everything into the hard drive, so I would just split screen, call up whatever interview I wanted, search key words, and move it in. So I tended more to end up with long, jumbly sections that I would then work on and craft into a chapter.”

And daily, in 1,500, 2,000, and 3,000 word blocks, Siklos came to know Black.

“Conrad lives the life of the major tycoons of the world with big houses and private jets – he likes to live large. I think he’s become the part. He used to play it, now he’s become it.

“In his Black kind of way, not only has he coveted famous people – I mean, everybody does, look at People magazine, it sells a million copies a week – but only Conrad Black could turn it into a career, a very prosperous career, and become one of those people in the process.

“I think his views on fame and celebrity are quite interesting. I asked him once – I expected something profound – I said, ‘When you meet all these famous people, what do you notice about them?’ He said, ‘It always strikes me how much they look like their pictures.’”

Our by-now four-bourbon chat then turns briefly from Black to an animated discussion of the little dolphins in the bar’s carpet pattern, and then to Siklos’s own prospects, and it turns out that, not only did he also once write a cartoon strip for the Financial Times called “Omnivore” (“that was the fun period of my life”), he sees his next project being a screenplay. “I’ve worked in a daily, I worked at a weekly, I’ve written monthlies, I’ve written a comic strip, I’ve written a book – why not?”

As we get up to leave, there is still one question about Black that has gone unanswered. What with the libel chill, I’ve hesitated asking Siklos all evening, but, as we are parting, it’s now or never. Siklos answers without hesitation. “Raisin Bran,” he says. “Conrad eats Raisin Bran.”