Those who might think that the era of the press baron is over haven’t heard of Lord Black. He may not be a household name but the Conservative peer, director of the company behind the Daily Telegraph and consummate insider is the éminence grise for large sections of the industry, orchestrating an audacious attempt to frustrate parliament’s plans for press regulation with a rival scheme endorsed by the country’s five largest newspaper groups.
Not to be confused with the former owner of the Daily Telegraph, Guy Black has been at the heart of a Conservative-press nexus for the best part of two decades. For the most part, it has given him intimate access into the top tier of society, not least at the first official engagement of Prince Charles, Camilla Parker-Bowles and Prince William.
The occasion was a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the now discredited Press Complaints Commission, where Black was the director back in 2001. At the time, Camilla’s companionship of the heir to the throne was still a matter of controversy, but like a debutante she allowed herself to be formally introduced to a 600-strong party that included journalists, cabinet ministers, celebrities such as Kylie Minogue, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Richard Branson and his family.
For Black and his partner Mark Bolland – the press secretary to the Prince of Wales – it was a crowning glory, an elegant confluence of both their interests to brighten up a dark February night in Somerset House. It demonstrated that Buckingham Palace could publicly celebrate Prince Charles’s romantic life and make it acceptable to a public still mourning Diana.
For critics though, the party was nothing but a “tacky showbiz event” denounced by the Daily Telegraph as “a frothy Hello!-type party for tabloid celebs … and cheesy stars such as Carol Vorderman and Richard and Judy.”
But the then-Telegraph editor Charles Moore was not a fan of either Black or Bolland and the soft power the couple wielded through their network of friends in the tabloid press, including Rebekah Brooks, then-editor of the News of the World and her then-boyfriend EastEnders star Ross Kemp, with whom the couple had holidayed.
Twelve years on, fate has gone full circle. Moore is long gone from the paper, and sitting in an office adjacent to the chief executive of the expanded Telegraph Media Group is one Lord Black, executive director reporting to the chief executive Murdoch MacLennan, the former managing director of Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers.
Brooks, facing phone-hacking and corrupt payments trials, may have moved out of the trade, but Black has moved on. He also has the ear of Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, arguably the most powerful figure in the industry. Insiders at the paper say he always takes Black’s calls and was one of few (along with Brooks and MacLennan) to be invited to his and Bolland’s civil partnership ceremony. News International is also happy to follow his lead.
He is seen as the invisible hand behind the prime minister’s decision to delay previously agreed plans with Labour, Lib Dems and Hacked Off and consider the 11th-hour alternative put forward by the press. Even critics of his – and the rival royal charter – will freely admit that he is both sharp and shrewd. An executive at a competing newspaper group says: “You have to get up early to outsmart him.”
Few in newspapers will speak on the record about him, and criticism and praise come in equal measure. He is said by one of his friends to be one of the most “overtly political” animals in the business, “not in party-political sense” but in terms of networking, with his choice of guests at his civil ceremony – Dacre, MacLennan, Brooks – cited as evidence of his power-seeking sensibility.
And the pressure on Black to deliver is enormous. He was almost jettisoned as the industry’s unofficial ambassador last December in the wake of the publication of the Leveson report because, as the former director of the PCC, he was seen to represent the discredited system of the past. Even now his support base is not complete, which means he will either end up being the kingmaker or the deal-breaker – some left-leaning newspaper groups, most notably the Guardian are sceptical.
Black, 48, was a local Conservative councillor in Essex, where he grew up and went on to work in the Conservative research department after graduating from Cambridge with a double first. In 1986, he became special adviser to John Wakeham, then energy secretary. Later he followed Wakeham, who then took him to the PCC.
A brief stint working for Conservative party leader Michael Howard following his work at the PCC in the mid-noughties reportedly cured him of his ambition to be an MP, but it is his closeness to senior Tories that is said to have made him the perfect conduit for the press to No 10. After the 2005 election, he joined the Telegraph Media Group as executive director, a non-editorial role that essentially meant he was the newspaper group’s chief lobbyist.
Maintaining contacts was always a priority. His wedding party, held after the civil partnership ceremony in London, was held in the Cotswolds in 2006. It was a swanky affair attended by the great and good and a sprinkling of editors and PRs. Sir Michael Bishop, the former owner of airline BMI, arrived on a private helicopter. Eventually the networking was rewarded with a peerage in July 2010, just months after Cameron’s election victory, sponsored by Wakeham and Lord Marland, a reward for years of service.
Against such a background, the question is whether Black is the man to deliver a consensus across the normally warring Fleet Street elements.
One newspaper executive says Black has enormous abilities to bring warring factions together into “a demilitarised zone” between tabloids and broadsheets. “He has this frictionless personality and seems to get on with people weirdly well. He is like Wakeham in that he is smooth and unperturbable.”
Lord Wakeham says Black has long been able to achieve consensus because of his long experience at the PCC, where broadsheets and tabloids were at loggerheads during their stint together between 1996 and 2003.
His former boss is one of the few prepared to go on the record about Black, with whom he worked for 10 years. “There are lots of people poncing about saying things but they haven’t the remotest chance of actually getting anything through,” said Wakeham. The peer regards Black as “an extremely efficient operator” and a “great draughtsman”.
Critical in the interminable post-Leveson debate has been Black’s ability to produce reform proposals in an attempt to head of Leveson both before and after publication. Only those who read the documents closely see that he is careful to protect his own position too.
Parliament’s royal charter for press regulation bans working peers from participating in the revamped system. But one clause in the press’s royal charter for regulation insists on just the reverse.
The confusion created by the emergence of a rival press charter has produced a growing belief that there will be some sort of negotiation to bring together the two documents. Which means, after 17 years at the heart of press regulation, it is quite likely there will be a job behind the scenes for this most connected peer to fill.
Article source: http://feeds.guardian.co.uk/~r/theguardian/uk/rss/~3/1IsGDIduPDU/lord-black-tory-peer-press-telegraph