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Sunday 1 April 2007

'Concoction of calumnies by envious lickspittles'?

"WE ARE looking at the tangled affairs of no fewer than 487 interlocking companies. At one end we have Bollinger International, with its 79 per cent holding in Tollinger International, with its 83 per cent holding in Mollinger, Nassau, itself a 92 per cent part-owned subsidiary of Kissinger, Cayman Islands, which in turn was controlled by the Toronto Stone and Gravel Co Inc, in which Lord Black and his wife were the sole shareholders."

This is how UK-based satirical magazine Private Eye summarises the Conrad Black case. I could correct it, but I doubt if I could much improve on it. One of these weeks I'll have to address the more serious aspect of what's going on in the Chicago court, but I can postpone that a little longer.

All you need to know at present is that the prosecution wants the jury to believe Lord and Lady Black are horrid and greedy and therefore he is guilty as charged, while the defence team is faced with making 12 ordinary Chicago citizens get their heads around some very dull technicalities which they believe will exonerate their client.

Black's lawyer, Edward Genson, who arrives in court every day in a motorizsed wheelchair, is said to be a master of cross-examination. An anecdote in the Financial Times the other day gives promise of fun to come. According to a local attorney, 20 years ago Genson gave a masterclass to a group of law students at a Chicago university which helped him achieve legendary status in the profession: "Mr Genson, who at the time walked with a cane, strutted into the courtroom where students were waiting for him and began acting bizarrely, standing up on a desk, kicking a chair and even undoing one student's tie. He then asked one of the students to play the part of a witness, and conducted a cross-examination of the student's recollection of what had just occurred. By the end of the inquisition, even other students were second-guessing their own memories, wondering what had really happened."

The court packed up for the week last Tuesday evening for no particular reason that I can discern, which gave the Blacks the opportunity to go to Toronto for a literary party in honour of Reflections on Islam, the latest book from journalist and TV producer George Jonas, a close friend of Lady Black's and the second of her four husbands. In his speech about the book, Black compared Jonas - who fled Hungary during the 1956 uprising - to Joseph Conrad and Samuel Beckett, in that "he writes brilliantly in what is, for him, a second language". (I was baffled by that momentarily, wondering wildly if Beckett had been a native Irish speaker, but it emerged that 'Waiting for Godot' had its premiere in Paris as 'En attendant Godot'.)

There should be another launch party this month when Black's 1,000-page The Invincible Quest: the Life of Richard Milhous Nixon comes out: hampered by his trial from going on a book tour, Black has already recorded several television interviews.

A serious biographer, Black's 1,280-page Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom was well reviewed, though it's likely to be used against him in court. It was his company, Hollinger International, that coughed up the several million dollars for the collection of Roosevelt's private papers on which Black based much of the book.

Both in his private and public communications, Black tends to overwrite: Private Eye, from which I am borrowing shamelessly but unapologetically, parodied his style brilliantly last week:

Black: "Never before in history has any courtroom been treated to such a pusillanimous, preposterous and pitiful farrago of ignorant poltroonery. Or what the great Talleyrand might have called 'the mendacious matter of moral mire'."

Foreman of Jury: "Can we have an interpreter, please?"

Black: "This entire case is nothing more than a concoction of calumnies, put together by envious lickspittles and mean-minded midgets, enraged by the genius of a man whose boots they are not worthy to lick and who has bestridden the stage of the world like no one since the great Napoleon Bonaparte, whom I am proud to call my friend!"

This may well be true. Black was a fine newspaper proprietor and there are plenty of envious pygmies among those who want to see him and his wife brought brought down. Much of the coverage is indeed unfair.

As one of their (few) defenders, Dominic Lawson, an ex-editor of The Sunday Telegraph, wrote last week, Barbara Black - who is a fine journalist - is being portrayed as "a cross between Cruella De Vil and Mata Hari".

A good friend of mine - a man of great integrity - is to be a witness for the defence. I'm keeping my mind open and will keep reporting.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards