Monday, August 22, 2005

The imps who gorged too much

F. David Radler, the second banana to press lord Conrad Black, once quipped that his contribution to journalism was the concept of a "three-man newsroom" in which two of the occupants sold advertising.

In his next engagement, it looks like witty Mr. Radler will be appearing at Uncle Sam’s House of Blues. If he pleads guilty, as anticipated, to his role in the alleged fleecing of $32 million from the shareholders of Hollinger Inc., he faces five years apiece on seven counts of assorted fraud.

Until jettisoned in 2003 amid cascading revelations of corporate misdeeds at Hollinger, Mr. Radler had been the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, where he made miserable the lives of many of my friends and cherished former colleagues, as well as plenty of good folks I never had the chance to meet.

In merciless slashing after assuming control of the paper in 1994, Mr. Radler cut the newsroom by 28% to 185 journalists. He also cranked editorial policy so far to the right that the traditionally conservative Chicago Tribune emerged as “the city’s moderate voice,” according to Chicago Magazine.

The Sun-Times continued to pay the price for Mr. Radler’s cynical reign after his departure, when it was censured a year ago for systematically inflating its circulation to overcharge its advertisers. The circulation fraud was uncovered – and promptly reported – by the paper’s new publisher, John Cruickshank.

Through it all, the people of the Sun-Times have continued to publish a smart, gutsy tabloid that’s tough on City Hall corruption yet a tender advocate for the city’s down and out. After enduring a succession of such colorful owners as Rupert Murdoch, Robert Page and Conrad Black, this staff deserves a Pulitzer for perseverance.

When Mr. Radler was indicted last week along with former Hollinger attorney Mark Kipnis, Lord Black was conspicuously mentioned as the “Chairman” but conspicuously unindicted. After cutting a plea agreement for himself, Mr. Radler is expected to help provide the information necessary to bring to justice his long-time partner in alleged crime.

The men bought their first newspaper in 1969, and later sold it at a tidy gain. Warming to the publishing business, they acquired over the years the Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post, the London Daily Telegraph and many other publications across Canada and around the globe.

Mr. Radler is a native of Montreal whose father ran a French restaurant called Au Lutin Qui Bouffe, which translates roughly as "The Imp Who Gorges Himself." He was the quiet Mr. Inside to Conrad Black’s Lord Overlord.

Although Mr. Black also was born a Canadian, he so coveted a peerage that he renounced his citizenship -- and twisted enough arms in Parliament -- to be named Lord Black of Crossharbour in 2001. Crossharbour, incidentally, is a commuter-train stop near the Daily Telegraph’s publishing plant in the Docklands of London.

The Lord and his vassal used their newspapers to maximize profits and settle political scores. Along the way, according to the indictment, they wrongfully created a series of complex sweetheart deals to vector profits from their shareholders into their own pockets.

Now, it looks as though the imps who gorged too much are finally going to choke on it.