Heart of Darkness

Christopher Hitchens

  • Not Many Dead: Journal of a Year in Fleet Street by Nicholas Garland
    Hutchinson, 299 pp, £16.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 09 174449 0
  • A Slight Case of Libel: Meacher v. Trelford and Others by Alan Watkins
    Duckworth, 241 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 7156 2334 6

Alexander reminded me that Black once said that he was prepared to let his editors have a completely free hand except on one subject. He forbade attacks on American Presidents in general and President Reagan in particular.

Entry for 18 April 1986, Not Many Dead

The success of Michael Moore’s film about Roger Smith and General Motors has aroused an envious spirit of emulation in my breast. ‘Conrad and Me’, a script which I hone and burnish in slack moments, has the following points of mild interest. In the summer of 1985, I wrote an article for the Spectator about Ronald Reagan’s colon cancer. I said what I believed to be true: that Reagan and certain of his advisers had known of the deplorable state of his health before the 1984 Election, and had chosen to cover it up along with much else. I cited some reputable medical writers to this effect. I then allowed myself some very vulgar thoughts about how Reagan, his colon in disrepair, would manage America’s affairs in the critical years to come. I’m a bit contrite about those paragraphs now: they were ill-tempered and mean-spirited and Reagan’s astounding moral, mental and physical deliquescence between 1985 and 1988 does not make them any less so.

I paid scarcely any attention to a letter that the Spectator subsequently published. It was a frothing note from some Canadian business mogul named Black, who evidently hero-worshipped Ronald Reagan. In his closing sentences this entrepreneur speaks of buying up some English newspapers in order to put me, and others like me, out of a job. I had a brief cackle on the telephone with the Spectator’s then-editor and filed it away under ‘department of empty threats’.

I had much the same reaction after meeting a British financial writer in Washington. He had been in Toronto to interview Black about something, and had found him swirling around his own boardroom, beating the air with the offending copy of the Spectator. He repeated verbally the claim he had made in print – that his motive in acquiring a newspaper empire was to cleanse the business of people like me. My friend said the bloke had seemed quite serious, and laughingly added that if Black did acquire complete control of the Telegraph I would be held accountable.

Black went on to depose the decrepit Berry family entirely. Who cares, I thought. I never wanted to work for the Telegraph and they never looked like offering me a job anyway. Then I stopped writing for the Spectator in order to accept an offer from the New Statesman. At a Spectator garden party, in front of my brother and other witnesses, Conrad Black surged up to Charles Moore and congratulated him on firing me. Ever the gentleman, Moore courteously pointed out that there had been a few lines in the magazine thanking me for my services and even regretting my departure. Then Conrad Black bought the Spectator.

Well, I reflected, that’s still several jumps behind for the tycoon from the Dominions. Another sulphurous letter from Black, rebuking Charles Moore and repeating all the litany against myself, was later published in the Spectator and marked the first time, to my knowledge, that a proprietor had helped himself to his own correspondence column. Heigh ho, I thought, pretty soon Black will be announcing he is a poached egg and shouting for large slices of toast to be laid out in his sanctum whenever he feels the need of a lie-down.

Then, this year, when the Sunday Correspondent invited me to be its American contributor, Black, or someone with a North American accent calling himself Conrad Black, was on the telephone within hours of my being gazetted, barking that I was a disgrace to the profession and should not be employed. Indeed he made the very damaging accusation that I was ‘a mental case’. A few weeks later, he was boring a dinner table in Georgetown, and loudly announcing that I ought to be ‘exterminated’. (If Black reads this, or as he would probably prefer to say, if he has this ‘drawn to his attention’, he may care to know that more than one of the guests gave me separate but identical accounts of his conduct at this soirée. He evidently has a knack of inspiring affection and loyalty in his friends.) Now, I am merely a lone scribe living on my depleted wits. Do I have the right to take offence at this campaign of harassment and defamation from a multimillionaire? I think – I think – I shall let it go for now. If Mr Black wishes to know why I may choose to spare him, he will have to read to the end of this article, or pay someone else to read that far on his behalf.

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