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Sunday 17 February 2008

Conrad Black: how to go down in style

The former newspaper magnate is philosophical as he prepares to begin prison life, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

My Google alert for Conrad Black comes up a few times a day with various solemn articles, but occasionally it gets confused and presents me with a bit of light relief. Misled by the headline "Lauren Conrad: Back in Black", it sent me a piece about Miss Conrad, a "reality star, fashion designer and certified cutie", who was described as being sexily dressed in "head-to-toe" black -- which conjured up a vision of a tight-fitting burqa but turned out to be low-cut and short.

I regard cheering up those in distress as an important corporal work of mercy, so I attached the article to an email to Conrad Black, who is due to go to jail on 3 March. "I don't know if you will find this diverting," I wrote, "but my Google news alert for Conrad Black just produced this."

I added, "the Archbishop of Canterbury really is beyond parody". (This was the week when the holy fool and fluffy beardie that is Rowan Williams had driven almost the whole of Britain mad by suggesting we should find ways of accommodating elements of sharia law in our justice system.)

"I thought you might find that amusing," was his response. "Williams is hopeless. The C of E should pack up its cards, end the apostasy, and return to Rome. As for Lauren Conrad, I'm happy to be associated with her, but do I understand that in returning to her car she became excessively revealing? All I see is a bit of quite shapely thigh. I'm no voyeur, but I was hoping for something a bit more risque. For good measure, I'll send you my Super Tuesday piece."

And his Super Tuesday piece from a Canadian newspaper that he once owned was excellent value too. Observing that Richard Nixon's daughter seemed to have pulled more votes for John McCain than the Kennedys had for Barack Obama, who had done poorly in their home state of Massachusetts, he added: "Surely, the Kennedy mystique and the bunk about Camelot, embodied for decades by a puffy, dissolute senator and a gaggle of toothy Kennedy women, has finally vanished into folklore."

Kennedys, he pointed out, should have no more influence "than do the relatives of other well-remembered presidents, such as the several lines of descendants Thomas Jefferson started with his comelier female slaves. These self-styled dynasts are claiming some grandeur for the not uncommon feat of surviving childbirth."

What makes Black such an enjoyable writer is not just his inveterate political incorrectness and the relish with which he deploys the English language, but the intelligence and erudition that underpin his opinions. Mike Huckabee would vanish shortly, he explained in his article: "The only states that would tolerate a candidate who trapped and ate squirrels after cooking them on a popcorn-popper, have already voted for Huckabee."

So maybe that gives a flavour of why I like my unexpected email friendship with Conrad Black. It helps that I think he's been abominably treated by the American justice system. Steve Skurka, author of Tilted: the trial of Conrad Black, has a scarifying attack on how American law now loads the system against the defence, especially through the mechanism of plea bargaining: "The overwhelming culture created in the American criminal justice system permits the prosecutors to punish defendants who exercise their right to go to trial and reward the legion of defendants who accept responsibility, plead guilty, and, most significantly, point fingers at others. Justice is effectively bartered in the prosecutor's office, not fought for in the courtroom."

Then there is the effect of the prosecution practice of charging the defendant with as many counts as possible.

As a defence attorney told Skurka: "There is a psychological barrier for jurors to repeat a not-guilty verdict 20 times. 'Let's give the prosecutor one,' is the overriding temptation." (Black was found guilty of four out of the original 16 charges.)

When I emailed to sympathise about the failure of his appeal to stay out of jail longer, there was not a shred of self-pity in Black's response.

"The place I have been assigned to is relatively good and if I do go there, they will ask me to teach. I almost always hated teachers, but I guess it's an elite occupation in a prison. We are very confident of winning at least part of the appeal, and of sharply reducing time served. My book about this outrage is almost ready, so if I must go, I will not be going quietly. It's like back to boarding school, without, one dares to assume, the tedium and indignity of corporal punishment."

I'm looking forward to the noise before he marches through the prison gate. And, of course, hoping he'll be allowed to email. He will not succeed in persuading me to go back to Rome, but I'd like nonetheless to carry on with my enjoyable corporal work of mercy.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards