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Sunday 13 May 2012

Tribulations over, Conrad is back home

Whatever your opinion of the former media magnate, he has earned a respite, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The email that turned up from admin@-inmate message.com at 11.46 on the morning of May 4 was terse: "Inmate 18330424 -- BLACK, CONRAD no longer has access to the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System; therefore, he/she may not send or receive messages." It was official: Black had been freed.

Black is wearing out his enemies, but there were still a few left with the energy to hope that when he was discharged from his Florida jail he would be barred from Canada, where his wife lives, and ignominiously deported by the US to the UK.

Famously, in 2001, the then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who disliked the criticism levelled at him in Black's newspapers, forced him to renounce his citizenship to take up the peerage.

Their hopes were dashed. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper bears no animus towards Black and was content for the Canadian immigration authorities to grant him, for now, a year-long temporary residency permit.

The writer David Frum made the case. "I find it hard to imagine there are many people who would seriously say that someone who was born in Canada, who grew up in Canada, who operated a business in Canada, created one of Canada's great national newspapers, should not be allowed to find refuge in Canada."

Black was back at his Toronto mansion in mid-afternoon, and while the press snapped him embracing his wife and playing with two big fluffy dogs, everything went quiet after that.

As his Toronto lawyer put it: "The man's been in prison for I don't know how long. He wants to decompress."

There was some fulmination from the leader of the opposition and some moaning in the press. But the general reaction was summed up in a clever rap, in a letter to the Edmonton Sun: "Lordy, Lordy, look who's comin' back./ It's that unrepentant mogul, Baron Black./ The US system is going clickety-clack/ to eject him from his penal shack./

"But Conrad Black is no ordinary hack;/ he's as sharp as an upholstery tack./ Getting what he wants has become a knack/ and powerful friends he does not lack./ Why is poor Mister Harper taking flak/ for opening our border just a crack?"

The National Post, which he founded and for which he writes a popular column, welcomed him back: "Without him," said the editorial, "you would not be holding this newspaper in your hands, or reading these words on our website."

Black's reputation as a talented writer and political columnist has been greatly enhanced over the last few years.

"He's a very well-read columnist," remarked the National Post's chief executive.

It's timely that A Matter of Principle, his memoir of his tribulations with the American legal system, is on the shortlist for the National Business Book Award, which will be presented later this month at the Toronto Ritz Carlton.

Many people (including me) who initially thought Black guilty as charged have changed their minds. Others accept that he suffered disproportionately.

"I fell," he said in his memoir, "and perhaps my downfall was partially deserved. But the heavy punishment I have received for crimes I did not commit was not deserved."

As a contributor to the Canadian Huffington Post put it: "By now it should be pretty clear that the American judicial push to take down Black was spearfishing in a tidal pool.

"None of the genuine titans of the true corporate kleptocracy -- the ones that depressed the toilet handle on the American economy and then pretended it wasn't their mess that overflowed across the globe -- have even for a nanosecond known fear of prison."

While these people slept like babes in their multiple homes, "Lord Black did the modern penance of seeing his wealth transferred to lawyers, then adjusting to orange suits . . . Convicted, he didn't whine. Imprisoned, he adjusted with quietness".

Black will fight on to clear his name and he has many more choices and challenges ahead.

But just for now, as someone who has followed his tribulations for years and who formed an email friendship with him during that period, I'm with his publisher, Doug Pepper: "As his friends, we're just happy to see him free."

Like him or loathe him, Baron Black of Crossharbour is a brave and considerable man.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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