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Sunday 8 July 2007

Then the RTE man came skiing in...

DEDICATIONS tend to be uncontentious, but not if you're Conrad Black and have a raft of scores to settle. Anyone opening his Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invincible Quest, the enormous biography coming out next week, will be greeted with Black's exultant answer to all those who prophesied that his wife would abandon him now he was powerless, impoverished and in trouble with the law: instead, she sits with him every day in court, scribbling notes assiduously. "To Barbara," it says. "Through good and bad times, she has been magnificent. No man could ask more and few could have received so much. She is beyond praise and criticism."

Whatever you think of Black, you have to admit he's not mealy-mouthed, which is presumably the main reason why his lawyers decided he should not take the stand. Instead, the last witnesses before the defence rested its case on Tuesday were a lawyer, an accountant and an ex-RTE journalist.

The lawyer, Chris Paci, testified that as a representative of an interested bank, he had a conversation with ex-governor Jim Thompson, the chairman of the Hollinger audit committee, about non-compete transactions. Contrary to Thompson's evidence of a few weeks ago, Paci said Thompson answered several questions and confirmed his approval. One up to the defence.

The accountant, Alan Funk, a former FBI agent specialising in corporate crime, had gone through more than 400,000 pages of documents and concluded that "all the essential information was disclosed to the auditors". This was excellent for the defendants, but its impact with the jury may have been somewhat undermined when they heard that Funk had been paid around $800,000 for his labours. Admittedly, compared to what the lawyers are getting, this is small potatoes, but if - like most of the jurors - you're a blue-collar worker, such information might vex you. Still, the defence was feeling cheerful: a former juror, Sandra Grubar, who had been discharged in April because of her father's illness, had said publicly that she thought the prosecution case "pretty shaky" and couldn't see how there could be convictions. She also thought the defence had made "a plausible argument" that Black's lavish spending was "just part of the business".

Bolstering that argument was where John O'Sullivan came in. In his youth, O'Sullivan was London correspondent for RTE; since then he has had a distinguished career as a columnist and editor in England, Canada and America. He has an extraordinary range of friends, to all of whom he is intensely loyal. He drifts in and out of our lives, - usually late and just returned from Hungary, perhaps, and maybe en route to Argentina. (In the acknowledgements to her autobiography, Margaret Thatcher captured his style well: "John O'Sullivan came skiing in occasionally, tuned up the arguments, pared the prose and pushed forward the narrative.") This benign and courteous figure turned up on time in court to explain that the $62,000 birthday party for Barbara Black that was two-thirds charged to Hollinger was "a business event masquerading as a social occasion".

The prosecution accused him of being biased; had Black not helped his career substantially at various periods? Certainly, said O'Sullivan courteously, but the relationship was more of a "two-way street". Mark Steyn reported: "Eric Sussman did his best, and demanded sneeringly whether, if it was not a business occasion, Mr O'Sullivan had brought his own brown-bag lunch with a sandwich, etc.

"'No,' said John blithely. 'And I don't believe Dr Kissinger did, either.'"

So, all in all, the defence was happy, until the judge delivered a hammer-blow, granting the prosecution's request for what is known as the "ostrich instruction". This means that even if the jury think fraud has not been committed by the defendants, they will have the option of finding them guilty of deliberately averting their eyes from what was going on under their noses. "Now they [the prosecutors] can argue that Black was getting all this money and never asked any questions," observed one defence lawyer.

I know I've become partisan, but it does seem to me that the prosecution had the goalposts moved because the other team were trouncing them. The closing arguments begin tomorrow. I will stick with this case, though if we're talking appeals I might not live long enough to see it through.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards