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Sunday 2 December 2007

Sneaking sympathy turns to mourning

Do you really want Black to spend rest of his life in an orange jumpsuit? asks Ruth Dudley Edwards

To my great enjoyment, for I've been missing him, there was an entertaining interview on Friday morning on the BBC's Today programme with Lord (Conrad) Black, who tomorrow week will learn if he is to be hauled off to jail for fraud. Deprived by the US court of his passport, he was doing what he could at long-distance to flog his massive biography of Richard Nixon.

Some of you may remember that I wrote a lot (21 articles, to be precise), about the trial of Black. When I began last March, he was facing 17 charges of fraud, money laundering, racketeering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice, with the prosecutors hoping he would get a jail sentence of 101 years. They were operating in what Black in his interview calls "the American manner of throwing all the spaghetti at the wall".

Although I had a sneaking sympathy for Black because he had been both managerially effective and editorially non-interfering when he controlled a newspaper empire, I assumed because of the torrent of evidence that he was guilty. And though I admired her as a columnist, I couldn't stand his glamorous, avaricious wife, Barbara Amiel, and went with the flow in blaming her for making him greedy. I was guilty of what Black on Friday said of the British media -- "a false bourgeois piety and priggishness that assumes whatever an American prosecutor says is true''.

Fast forward to July, and I was in mourning when Black was found guilty on four counts, for by then I had been impressed by his and Amiel's guts and style, as well as horrified by the sloppiness and vindictiveness of the prosecution, and the constant attempt to sway jurors by making them envious. "Ladies and gentlemen, Conrad is different ... from you and me. He is a rich man," said Eddie Greenspan, Black's lawyer, during his closing argument. "But in America, you do not convict people for being rich. Ask yourself: Why are the prosecutors focusing on this? Because they hope you will judge Conrad Black not on the facts of this case, but on his wealth, his lifestyle, and his vocabulary."

The prosecutors were being smart. These days, your ordinary Joe resents people making fortunes from business almost as much as he begrudges prime ministers being paid as much as senior civil servants.

For some reason I can't grasp, it's okay to make billions by kicking a football and endorsing teeth-rotting colas and tacky clothes and to spend it on bling for your WAG, but if -- like Black -- you build up a vast empire and consequent fortune from nothing, you're regarded as a bloodsucker. This is why there has been so little public outrage over the destruction of Black's company by the forces of corporate governance: as he pointed out on the BBC, the share price of the company from which he was thrown out has collapsed from $23 (€15.66) to $1.05 (71c), wiping out $1.75bn (€119bn) of shareholder value.

As Black -- whose lawyers have so far cost over $100m (€68m) -- lodged objections and appeals and awaited sentencing, he was banned from leaving the US to spend time in his home (Canada) or his adopted home (Britain), so had to settle for his Florida mansion. Amiel -- who once foolishly quipped to a reporter that her extravagance knew no bounds -- had been tipped to abandon her fourth and richest husband as his fortune leaked away to courts and lawyers, but she's there in Florida with him. Publicly, she is much angrier than Black, a Catholic who has been drawing solace from spiritual writers and especially Cardinal Newman.

In a recent column, Amiel wrote of her difficulties during the Jewish Days of Repentance. "An essential prerequisite for Jews at this time is to forgive all those who have wronged them. I want to be honest here: every year my list becomes longer and forgiveness more difficult, and now I'm close to the point where it's simply not on. I'm inclined to bargain and ask if it's all right to stop wanting to disembowel with my own hands those who have wronged my husband and offer to let them be disembowelled by others."

On the BBC, Black was up against John Humphrys, broadcasting's arch-inquisitor, who is so fierce and tenacious that most people in the public eye would rather have their toenails pulled out than face him.

Humphrys is small, excitable, frugal and anti-Establishment and Black must be everything he dislikes.

JH: "It's an almost poetic irony that this massive book on Nixon should have been written by you going through your own fall from grace."

CB: "I wouldn't call it a fall from grace."

JH: "What would you call it."

CB: "Persecution."

JH: (Dumbfounded) "You've done nothing wrong?"

CB: "Absolutely nothing."

Calmly, Black pointed out that having been accused first of running a $500m (€340m) kleptocracy and then charged with a $60m (€40.8m) fraud, only $2.9m (€1.9m) and three charges were now an issue and his lawyers hoped to dispose of these on appeal. He agreed with an incredulous Humphrys that he was defiant, not penitent.

Humphrys tried the fall-from-grace tack again. "I'm an innocent man," said Black serenely, "and I'm fighting for my life and this theory that it's a great rise and fall story or some sort of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy and that I was misled by my wife and lived too extravagantly -- that's all nonsense.'

But, spluttered Humphrys, what about private jets and grand houses? "Most people don't live like that, do they?"

"The issue," responded Black, "is not how most people live. It's what people can afford to do. Most people live in the manner they can afford and that's what I did."

After a hopeless attempt to get Black to admit to having been arrogant and bombastic, Humphrys extracted an admission. "Would I have done some things differently? Of course I would have. I'm not going to turn this into a confessional, but I clearly misjudged the strength of the corporate governance movement. I did not misjudge their virtue or lack of it."

JH: "The very strong likelihood is you'll go to jail, isn't it?"

CB: "It's certainly a distinct possibility, but I wouldn't call it a strong likelihood. No."

JH: "How are you going to cope with that?"

CB: "If it comes to that, believe me I'll cope with it."

He was taking comfort from his travails not having been in vain. "It is not an honour that I sought but it has been my honour to show the shortcomings of the plea-bargain system and the shortcomings of the corporate governance zealots and to the extent that I endure a sentence at all and serve the sentence I am merely participating in compounding the injustice which will be the accepted fact of this case before too long."

How did he face the future? "Oh, quite resolutely... Even on a worst case I'll be back... Let's not get carried away with Victorian moralism that we think this the end of someone's useful life." He wouldn't go back to publishing, which is no longer profitable, but to finance, which "is not a difficult area to make money in.

Come on, be generous. This guy has class. He's lost his business and his fortune. Do you really want him to spend the rest of his life in an orange jumpsuit?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards