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Sunday 15 July 2007

Guilty Black's most heinous offence was against style

NO, this is not the week for the considered piece about Conrad Black, found guilty of four of the 13 charges against him.

Exotic charges such as racketeering have been thrown out and - in a classic compromise by an exhausted jury - he's been done for such lesser indictments as fraud and obstructing justice.

This weekend, all over the newspapers, his few remaining friends will be lamenting (although relieved it wasn't worse), his many enemies will be exulting (although sorry it wasn't worse) and I - who started out 17 weeks ago thinking Conrad Black should go to jail and ended concluding the prosecution deserved jail more than he did - will be rather lugubriously reading and reading, with a view to giving you the flavour of it all; next week I will try to write sensibly about what this case means for capitalism.

UNLUCKY THIRTEEN: Conrad Black arrives with his wife, Barbara Amiel Black, for the verdict in Chicago on Friday, July 13 - he was on trial on 13 charges

Since the judge - for some reason that leaves me in the normal baffled state to which the workings of the law consign the ordinary citizen - has ruled that he won't be sentenced until the end of November, I've no idea what his future holds, though we know his passport has been removed and the judge will tell him on July 19 if he can stay out of jail on bail.

His lawyers say he will appeal, though there is speculation about whether he has enough energy, fight or money left to do so.

My guess is that he will never give up. The qualities that made Black capable of writing an enormous book (a fine biography of Richard Nixon) as he lost his companies, his reputation and his wealth, are those of a stayer. What's more, he truly believes he is innocent.

I spent too much of last week reading Alastair Campbell's diaries and watching the linked TV programmes, so I've been thinking a lot about journalism and spin.

Here's a quote that bothered me: "Given just 30 minutes' notice of a verdict, Black, a notorious late riser, arrived in court five minutes late, after all his co-accused, in a tan suit with his hair still damp from a shower. He swaggered to the defence table, sitting down with a grimace.

"He was accompanied by Lady Black, his British-born second wife, and his daughter, Alana. During the first break in the hearing, they rushed to huddle with Black but neither kissed or embraced him."

"Swagger" has a great resonance for me. When I covered Orange parades and watched aged men in shabby suits walking in the rain, I was always fascinated by the nationalist commentators who wrote of their swaggering.

On this occasion, I really find it hard to believe that you could produce a convincing swagger in the confined circumstances of a small courtroom. A pro-Black hack could have written: "After several false alarms, and given just 30 minutes notice to get from hotel to court, Black rushed into court slightly late and sat down looking apologetic.

"His wife, the distinguished columnist Barbara Amiel, and his daughter, Alana, who have supported him loyally throughout his trial, dashed to his side during the first break in the hearing."

Over the past couple of weeks, hacks on expenses in Chicago have been desperately trying to justify their existence by making something out of nothing. When Black became cross when photographers blocked the revolving doors leading to the courtroom and raised his middle finger at them, it gave rise to thousands of words about his evident stress.

Last week's award goes to Amy Verner of the Canadian Globe and Mail, who managed a whole article about Black's failure to wear socks. "His pale, thick ankles (sometimes called 'mankles') bore little resemblance to the thin, sun-kissed ones exposed by male models throughout the Fall 2008 menswear shows that recently ran their course in Paris and Milan. And while Mr Black's sockless ensemble - yellow ochre suit, unbuttoned blue-check shirt - likely had no bearing on Judge Amy St Eve's decision to send the jury back for more deliberating, it certainly made a negative impression on image consultants and professionals alike.

"'That was a very bad move,' said Damon Allan, whose Alexander Steel Image Consulting has clients across southern Ontario. 'It shows a lack of respect.' "

So maybe the mankles swung it for the jury. At this week's bail hearing we'll be able to speculate on their effect on the judge.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards