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Sunday 25 March 2007

Conrad really may have gone too far this time

"REALLY," said the woman I sat beside at lunch on Friday, "Conrad has gone too far this time". She was not speaking of any further alleged financial misdoings by Conrad Black, but of his letter last week to The Times.

Lord Black, you need to understand, used to have many friends in the days when he was a generous patron and an extravagantly hospitable host, but, strangely - now that he is on trial in Chicago accused of defrauding Hollinger, his media company, of $60 million - most of them have melted away as dramatically and permanently as Al Gore would have us believe the polar ice cap has. What had really annoyed my companion - who has been sympathetic to her old acquaintance - was his churlishness about William Rees-Mogg, one of the very few mates who had remained loyal.

Lord Rees-Mogg of Hinton Blewitt is the grandest of grand journalists. Once editor of The Times, at the age of 78 he is still a magisterial columnist who mostly concerns himself loftily with the moral issues of the day: if a cathedral could write, it would write like Rees-Mogg. So it was quite something that last week the old boy wrote a defence of Black, condemning his fair-weather friends, hailing him as a great entrepreneur and explaining away some of the charges made against him. Trying to explain how Black had made the errors that look likely to send him to the clink, Rees-Mogg offered: "There is, of course, one figure who leaps out at one as the true role model for Conrad; not Napoleon [whom Black much admires], not Beaverbrook [an earlier somewhat dodgy Canadian media mogul], but the Great Gatsby [the eponymous hero of Scott Fitzgerald's finest novel]. They have the same energy, the same liking for hospitality, the same big romantic illusions, the same virtues and some of the same flaws."

Black read this in a week which for him had been pretty grim. On Monday, his wife, Barbara Amiel, herself a journalist, had been plastered all over the media because she had told a radio reporter that she was a slut and a couple of hacks that they were vermin. This is not wise behaviour if you're hoping for a sympathetic press for your husband. (Mind you, only a fortnight ago, Black had described the British media as "narrowly concentrated and uniform in their group-think" and "conditioned to truckling to head boy, whether it's an incumbent newspaper chairman or any conventional wisdom".)

On Tuesday, the prosecutor had compared Black and his three co-defendants to bank robbers and burglars. And on Wednesday, he had to listen to his own barrister explaining to the jury that while his client was undoubtedly innocent, it was understandable that the "snotty" and "arrogant" attitude he showed in his correspondence might suggest otherwise. (Sample extract from a Black email: "an epidemic of shareholder idiocy".)

So what does Black do after that? Why he fires off a letter to The Times complaining that Rees-Mogg was wrong. "I understand he meant well by his reference to the Great Gatsby, but Gatsby was an amiable charlatan who ended up being murdered in his own swimming pool. I accept the sentiment but not the analogy. William seems to imagine that while I may be acquitted, my world has somewhat imploded, like Gatsby's. I don't think so, so when justice is done in Chicago I will be back, and look forward to seeing him."

Interviewed by vermin, Rees-Mogg pondered this judiciously. "I'm not sure Gatsby is a charlatan, actually. He's perceived as a war hero. He's plainly perceived as highly charismatic. But he's perceived as somebody who's carried away by his own ambitions."

'Conrad Black Has No Plans To End Up Shot In His Own Pool' was the headline I liked best.

"For my purposes in this case," Black's lawyer, Ed Genson, had confided to the jury about Black's emails, "he goes a little too much for rhetorical flourishes and I wish you did not have to have his musings". That certainly isn't the way the press view it. Much of this case is highly technical and boring, so the reporters are praying for the light relief of many more musings from Lord and Lady Black.

But there's more to this case than sound bites. Because of the alleged sins of Black and his colleagues, in the name of probity, regulators and courts took the companies they controlled away from them, installed a new chairman, Gordon Paris, who is not only being paid around $17,000 a day, but has succeeded in pretty well wrecking what was a very profitable enterprise: the share price has collapsed from $21 to $4. There are a lot of shareholders now grumbling that they were much better off under Conrad Black and they wish the nosy do-gooders had left him to it. There are interesting days ahead.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards