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Sunday 12 August 2007

Conrad Black is left fighting for his reputation, not his freedom

I REALLY intended to take a long rest from Conrad Black, but I fell to thinking about him again last week when I read that in the UK, chief executives of multinational corporations are top of the list for job satisfaction, beating hairdressers into second place. (Teachers are 11th, lawyers are 44th and journalists 50th: I suspect it has much to do with how useful you and other people think you are.)

The downside, of course, is that when they fall, as Sir John Brown of BP did a few months ago because of a vengeful rentboy, the drop is deep and the damage colossal. As his friends keep pointing out, it isn't freedom and fortune that Black is fighting for, it's his reputation.

"Conrad Black's life's work is in ruins," wrote Mark Steyn in a long elegiac piece called "The human drama the jury didn't see", in which he mourned the decision of Black's lawyers not to call him to the witness stand.

"At the height of his empire, Hollinger International had two kinds of publications: there were the assets -- the cheap 'n' cheerful cash-cow community papers in North America run according to David Radler's (remember him: plea-bargained for a light sentence in exchange for testifying he and Black committed fraud) belief in the three-man newsroom, two of whom also sell advertising; and then there were the flagships -- the Telegraph, the National Post and the Spectator -- which Conrad saw as vehicles for advancing ideas, for making history.,When he had asked Steyn to abandon the US for London and the Telegraph, nothing was said about practicalities. "Instead, he presented it in epic terms: 'It's time to save England!' he said, putting exclamation points on everything. To save it from the European Union, and other predators. A few weeks later, Conrad was gone, and the Telegraph was just the Jamestown Sun writ large, another asset to be disposed of in the interests of maximising shareholder value.,Steyn regards it as incredible that Black would have risked his enormous influence for a few million bucks, and he believes that the jury would have understood that had they seen him under cross-examination and grasped "the man in full, warts and all, rather than only the warts, the unsightly carbuncles of non-compete fees and company-jet perks and a security video of a British peer taking boxes down the back stairs of a Toronto office building".

Black and his wife wanted him to testify, but his lawyers didn't trust him, because, in Steyn's view, they simply weren't good enough at their job. And why didn't he have good enough lawyers? Because so much of Black's money was seized that he couldn't pay top dollar.

"That's a time-honoured technique of the United States government," said Steyn, "they not only buy up the witnesses with plea deals and immunity agreements . . . but they like to ensure you don't have the wherewithal to do any legal shopping of your own.,What the case has left me with is a profound unease about aspects of the American legal system that often seem superficially attractive to observers on this side of the pond frustrated by the emphasis on liberties in our common law.

Steyn has suggested an end to six practices he thinks simply unjust: plea bargaining (which often induces the innocent to plead guilty to "something, anything, just to make the government bugger off and destroy some other fellow's life" and effectively penalises those who insist on trial by jury); technical charges like "mail fraud", in which the offence is not fraud but sending an associated letter; the right to seize a defendant's assets before trial and thus limit defence resources; piling up charges in the hope of pushing the jury towards guilty judgments on a few; statute creep, which results in the prosecutor applying inappropriate laws (i.e. accusing Black of racketeering); and de facto double jeopardy, where two separate organs of state can sue the same person consecutively for the same alleged crimes.

Black, said Steyn, "would have benefited from the above changes, but so would a lot of nickel 'n' dime stumped-tooth losers with tattoos -- which is as it should be. Justice is supposed to be blind. But this system is blind drunk on its own power".

Meanwhile, Barbara Black reports that their Chicago lease is up and she has to deal with four months' accumulation: "Books, magazines, legal papers, half-finished jars of marmalade, frying pans, vitamins, rolls of Scotch tape and boxes of staples, Band-Aids and Woolite and bottles of distilled water for the iron and steamer".

Men and moves, she contends, "are mutually exclusive", so she will have to tuck under her arm a husband who -- buoyed by the good reviews of his biography of Richard Nixon -- is spending every spare moment before he is sentenced scribbling away on another book.

I hope it's giving him plenty of job satisfaction.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards