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Sunday 15 April 2007

In defence of common sense and Conrad Black

I STARTED out on this odyssey with Conrad and Barbara Black feeling a mild antipathy towards them (snobbery and conspicuous consumption are failings I find hard to empathise with), but as the weeks go on, I grow more sympathetic. There is, for instance, a grandeur about their refusal to try currying favour with the media. Remember Lady Black losing her temper and calling a couple of hacks vermin? Well, try this for an apology.

"I spend most of my day in the Everett McKinley Dirksen courthouse, which was designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1964. Visionary though he was, van der Rohe did not envision wall-to-wall human beings bearing battery back packs pressing up against the glass walls of his courthouse.

"From the inside looking out they resemble the clustered underbellies of insects attempting to crawl up windowpanes only to fall back, their antennae and legs sticking out at various angles. The eyes blink and mouths open as they shout questions, but just as one cannot hear the cries of insects so one cannot hear the sounds. I finally lost my temper with some and owe them an apology for ill-chosen words they overheard, but it's been a long haul."

What this insect particularly enjoys is that Mies van der Rohe went in for what he called "skin and bone" architecture. "Less is more," he said smugly, as he surveyed his ghastly steel and plate-glass buildings.It's a splendidly incongruous backdrop for the pillorying of the Blacks, who, as we know, are not minimalist by inclination.

In harping on about their extravagance, the prosecution are still fixated on the expensive trip to Bora Bora, although the jury now know from one of Black's emails that this was not a holiday to envy. "We just got back yesterday from a shambles of a trip to the South Pacific," he wrote to a friend, "where I came down with bronchitis and almost drowned snorkelling as a result. We felt like geriatric freaks among a sea of honeymooners - loutish young men and their perky wives." The island was "in the throes of a dengue fever epidemic and we spent the rest of our time there applying insect repellent and sweltering."

Members of the jury were observed to chuckle, which was thought to be one up for the defence: if Black can make them laugh, they are less likely to send him down.

But of course the issue isn't whether the holiday was a disaster: it's about whether Hollinger should have paid for a large chunk of the flights. The defence case is that part of the trip was properly a business expense, but the prosecution presented a copy of Black's customs declaration on their return to the US in which he described the purpose of his travels as 'personal'.

Yet, for what it's worth, I have on occasion written 'personal' on such forms if I've had a multi-purpose trip, as any ambiguity is liable to attract lengthy and pointless questions from a uniformed zealot. These are parlous times for those impatient with paperwork: henceforward I will be more pedantic.

Apart from the occasional moment of light relief, it was a tough, yawn-inducing week for the jury and the insects ('Conrad trial a snoozer' was one headline), but the prosecution cannot be too pleased. On Monday, one of their star witnesses, Fred Creasey, Hollinger's comptroller, finally left the stand after days of increasingly unhelpful testimony: his constant refrain of "I cannot recall" made him a laughing-stock by the end.

Additionally, some of Black's emails showed that he had been properly concerned with developing a corporate policy about legitimate perks that the Hollinger board had signally neglected to devise.

In the grand Conradian manner he wrote of the importance of distinguishing "business, quasi-business and non-business expenses: a degree of accommodation with contemporary norms is what we need. We will not abdicate and declare all perquisites to be corrupt." Yes, Black wanted perks, but he wanted them to be legal.

Even more unhelpful to the prosecution was much of the contribution of Canadian lawyers involved in structuring a $3.2bn sale of Hollinger newspapers to CanWest. In the midst of 12 hours of video-taped testimony, it became clear that the advice from this respected firm had been that the now contentious non-compete agreement had been wholly legitimate.

Black's lawyer, Eddie Genson, has won many hearts by bringing some colour and fun into the proceedings. He zooms along Mies van der Rohe's corridors on his green motor scooter with a little American flag on its front, honking his horn when anyone gets in his way. He's doing Black proud. I can't be the only one beginning to wonder if there's anything more to this case than spite and envy.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards