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Lord, No

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There are journalists in America who refuse to vote in primaries, lest registering with one party or another place their objectivity in doubt. Then there's Conrad Black.

Attentive readers have asked me where the Sun-Times gets off calling itself "An Independent Newspaper" on its editorial page when it's merely a pushpin in Black's global Hollinger empire--which in our neck of the woods alone claims the Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Post-Tribune, and the Pioneer Press and Star neighborhood chains. The answer might be this: when it comes to managing his American papers, Black remains so primly neutral he's not even an American. And though he controls over half the dailies in Canada, his native land, and recently launched the National Post to reach any stray Canucks the other papers might be missing, he doesn't live there either. Home is London--has been for years--and when Black decided it was time to enter government he protected the dignity of his New World holdings by applying to Britain's House of Lords.

Black is a man with a purpose, and in her column the other day in Maclean's, the Canadian newsweekly, his wife, Barbara Amiel, made that purpose clear. "He cares about policy issues and has a remarkable sense of history," she explained. "Playing a role in the House where Lords Denning, Disraeli and Carrington had spoken thrilled him....He would not take the party whip but sit as a 'cross-bencher'--an independent, in the great tradition of Bertrand Russell and Yehudi Menuhin."

Finally, a publisher who aspires to emulate Bertrand Russell. Yet instead of praise, Black received a stunning rebuff. The door to Britain's upper house was slammed in his face by his own prime minister, setting off a dramatic international incident.

The Sun-Times has chosen to ignore the tempest, but the tale is told in the suit Black boldly filed last month in Toronto against Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien. It seems that last February the leader of Britain's Conservative Party notified Black that the time had come for Black to enter the peerage. The Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, assured Black on May 28 that the Canadian government had said it would present no obstacle, provided Black became a British citizen and limited use of his new title to the Old World. Black accepted those terms, and by mid-June he'd nailed down dual citizenship--a considerably swifter naturalization process, no doubt, than enjoyed by a cabbie from Uganda.

On June 14 Blair told Black the nomination was en route to the Queen of England and a title was days away. But three days later the deal was off. Chretien had stepped in after all, informing Buckingham Palace that Black's peerage would violate Canadian law.

So an affronted Black is suing Chretien for the symbolically profound pocket change of $25,000, and Canada is transfixed. Perusing the suit reminded me of my days at the Sun-Times back in the 70s, when there was concern in the newsroom that the dashing proprietor of that era, Marshall Field V, had his head stuck fast in society's cumulus. Compared to Black, Field was a serf, a genial drayman mired in mud.

"The plaintiff claims," says Black's suit, "a declaration that the Government of Canada and the Prime Minister of Canada have and had no right or power to advise Her Majesty the Queen in right of the United Kingdom not to confer an honour on a dual citizen of Canada and the United Kingdom."

Chretien's justification for his blatant obstructionism is the Nickle Resolution, a bill passed by Canada's House of Commons back in 1919 that never even made it to the Canadian Senate. Its purpose was to advise George V against "conferring any title of honour or titular distinction upon any of your subjects domiciled or ordinarily resident in Canada." As I'm domiciled in London, Black argues, the resolution has nothing to do with me, and furthermore it isn't law and never was.

And as principle, as an assertion of Canadian egalitarianism, it's been nullified by time and neglect. "Since 1920 hundreds of Honours have been bestowed upon Canadians and more than twenty-five of those Honours carried titular distinctions," Black's suit argues. "No objection, to the knowledge of the defendants, was taken to the conferring of any such Honours."

The suit surveys the fast company Black seeks to join. There were former Canadian prime minister R.B. Bennett, dubbed a viscount in 1941; Chief Justice Lyman Duff and Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, both knighted in 1934; composer Ernest MacMillan, knighted in 1935; William Stephenson, who broke the German Ultra code, knighted in 1945; Neil Shaw, a Montreal businessman, knighted in 1994. "Of the more than twenty-five British titular Honours conferred on Canadians, one was a Viscount, two were baronetcies, and more than twenty were Knighthoods." Black was expecting a baronetcy himself.

And should the Nickle Resolution be construed as law, says the suit, it's a law that expired in 1977, when Canada passed the Citizenship Act permitting unrestricted dual citizenship with the United Kingdom. To be denied a title is to be restricted, says Black, intimating that the prime minister dusted off the Nickle Resolution as an act of petty vengeance.

"The plaintiff subsequently spoke with Prime Minister Chretien on June 17, 1999, but the Prime Minister refused to alter his position on the appointment," says the suit. "Prime Minister Chretien justified his position by reference to the Nickle Resolution and the status of the monarchy in Canada. He also stated that he was not kindly treated by the National Post, a paper published by the plaintiff. This reference to newspaper articles about the Prime Minister was the third occasion within six months that Jean Chretien mentioned to the plaintiff his dissatisfaction with published comments in the National Post."

Since last winter the Post has been pounding away at Chretien with allegations that federal business-development funds have been lining the wrong pockets in the prime minister's home district in Quebec. There's much more smoke than fire, says a reporter at a rare non-Hollinger paper, the national Globe and Mail, and the press Black doesn't control has pretty much left the story alone. Here in Illinois, where republicanism thrives, it's easy to presume that Chretien missed a golden opportunity. Surely a newspaperman too full of himself to remain a commoner is his own worst enemy, and Chretien should have let the loathsome popinjay follow his vanity where it was leading him--off a cliff. But Canadians are different. Up there, Black has earned points by not simply renouncing his Canadian citizenship, which is what Roy Thomson did back in 1963 when the barber's son from Toronto turned press lord became Lord Thomson of Fleet.

"Prime Minister Chretien's intervention constitutes a misfeasance of public office for which he is personally liable," Black asserts in his suit. If by remote chance that intervention was legal, nevertheless "the Prime Minister is liable for negligence" for allowing Black to think he'd become a British lord once he became a British citizen. Since the honor Black expected was ballyhooed beforehand, "the plaintiff suffered considerable embarrassment and inconvenience."

The most "considerable embarrassment" in this landmark case might be what both Black or Chretien are too full of themselves to feel. Canadian commentators mock both men. But Chretien gets the worst of it--and only partly because most columnists are on Black's payroll. Sensible journalists expect better from prime ministers than they do from publishers.

But how, you might wonder, can Black possibly claim that Chretien had no "right or power" to "advise" the queen on the Black appointment? In a free country even a prime minister gets to put his two cents in, no? The answer seems to be that in the argot of constitutional monarchy, to "advise" is actually to instruct. Chretien gave the queen advice she wasn't free to ignore.

Of course Tony Blair might have stepped in. But why should he? Black's London Telegraph is no friend of his; it speaks for the Conservatives. On June 19 the full list of new life peers was announced--22 who'd been nominated by Blair's Labour party and 4 (Black would have been the fifth) by the opposition Conservatives, giving Labour an advantage among life peers in the House of Lords for the first time in history. Having behaved correctly with Black's nomination, says the Globe and Mail reporter, Blair must now be laughing up his sleeve.

This gripping saga has been chronicled on the Sun-Times's newsroom bulletin board, but the newspaper hasn't let a whisper of it into its pages. The story it's repressing is a good one. When before was a great American newspaper--the gritty voice of the plainspoken urban heartland--owned by a citizen of a second country thirsting to join the nobility of a third?

News Bites

What Canadians admire about Conrad Black is his complete lack of Canadian diffidence. An example of that diffidence is the shrine in Brantford, Ontario, home of Wayne Gretzky--the Sports Hall of Recognition. The local daily, by the way, is the curiously named Brantford Expositor. Black owns it.

Gretzky was one of the notables speaking late last month at the Open Ice conference in Toronto, a national hockey "summit" ignored by every American daily I saw--including papers in the bedrock NHL cities of Chicago, Detroit, and New York. The premise of the three-day conference was that Canada has lost preeminence in the sport it considers its own--it now provides the NHL with its bullies and role players, but the stars come from Europe. The problem was tracked back to overregimented youth leagues--where even coaches of little kids favor size and muscle over agility, thereby driving a lot of true athletes out of the game, and where teams play games constantly and therefore almost never practice, though it's in practice that skills are learned.

A revolution in Canadian hockey will be felt sooner or later in the United Center and every other NHL rink. That's why Open Ice struck me as an important sports news story. But the handful of sports journalists I reached in Chicago--though aware in a general way of Canada's soul-searching over hockey--didn't know the conference was going on.

Dennis Britton, editor of the Sun-Times from 1989 to '95, just lost the job he took next--editor of the Denver Post. The cruelly comic Web site that had been established to urge him out of town, the "Dennis Britton Go Home! Page," immediately announced it would shut down. Sardonic Web sites are everywhere now, and if you're wondering, you can find Conrad Black's at www.blackenvy.com. A new Black quote is posted every day; Monday's is from his autobiography: "We own serious newspapers and reported fairly but went as far as we could in rational editorial argument in favour of the [Conservative] government. In the last Sunday Telegraph before the election...we fired every cannon we had in promotion of the government's cause."

For this gallantry in combat, the Conservative Party wished to reward him.

I spotted the following yammering in an earnest New York Times piece on the Pete Rose question. "This is a sport that has yet to recover fully from the terrible scandal of 1919, when members of the Chicago White Sox 'threw' World Series games."

It hasn't?

And what are those quote marks around "threw" supposed to mean? Skepticism? Fear that Buck Weaver will sue for libel? The assurance of the New York Times copy desk that it knows perfectly well the White Sox didn't literally pick up the games and heave them?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Conrad Black; Jean Chretien photos/AP-World Wide Photos.

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