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Sunday 24 August 2008

Getting the inside track on Contrad Black 

The jailed media king is a victim of injustice, but prison has not dulled his spirit, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

The miracle that is Google alerts me to media mentions of Conrad Black, which is how I discovered that I am now linked with him in newspaper articles from England to Canada to Dubai.

This newfound fame rests on a piece I wrote a few weeks ago in the Sunday Independent which mentioned an email Black had sent me from jail. It was run a few days later by a sister newspaper, which is why the press keep referring to an email he sent to "Belfast Telegraph columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards" describing prison as "better than I have expected".

In a hatchet job, the Daily Mail quoted an anonymous prison source as saying "Conrad remains very snobbish, despite having the same daily routine as all the other prisoners. He said he was shocked by how uneducated most of his fellow inmates were."

Snobbish? I'd have said naive. And I think it's admirable that he quickly set about helping to educate the inmates, who apparently have responded so well to his talks on American history that a bigger venue had to be provided.

The piece alleged that in prison Black is known as "Lordy" and that his cellmate acts as his butler, gofer and cleaner -- rather suspect information since in fact he sleeps in a dormitory with several others.

The New York Post was more prurient, describing how on arrival he was strip searched along with several others and had to squat so he could be searched for contraband. This, said Black, in an email to the National Post, "was the normal level of accuracy for the New York Compost. There have been plenty of strip searches, but not in the presence of bemused fellow residents. The Compost's source and description are fiction. They are absurd but in no way embarrassing."

Black certainly hasn't been cowed. Neither has his wife Barbara Amiel, who a couple of weeks ago wrote an impassioned defence of her husband which inspired much sneering.

There is much glee at what's happened to the Blacks. "A lot of people didn't like us," wrote Amiel. "My husband's exuberant displays of intellectual prowess, plus his confidence that he was somehow exempt from the normal rules of petty mankind -- to wit, he could call many journalists lazy without being buried by them when the first real opportunity came -- irritated enemies and even some admirers. My own political incorrectness and penchant for peacock display was a burr under the saddle of many. Add worldly achievement and the evident happiness of our marriage and you have a perfect Petri dish for animus."

People they thought were their friends let them down, which came as a real shock as the Blacks are themselves exceptionally loyal.

When Alfred Taubman, the chairman of Sotheby's, was charged with price-fixing, the Blacks stood by him publicly and privately. "The Blacks loved power," wrote a journalist colleague, "but they were sympathetic to misfortune." Yet according to Black's biographer, Taubman was the first to turn down his plea for financial help.

A former clerk to a US Supreme Court Justice recently wrote a scathing analysis of Black's trial that concluded that if his conviction is allowed to stand, "a precedent will have been set that could leave thousands of executives of companies at the mercy of prosecutors with exceptionally, even unconstitutionally, broad discretion over what is and is not illegal behaviour."

Black's language in another email to me (are you listening, Dubai?) was more baroque. Responding to my remark that in his case the law had proved to be a spavined ass, he described it as rather "a venomous roach, enforced by rattlesnakes and adjudicated by hyenas".

Last week the hyenas in Chicago turned down his appeal for a review of the case: he's now heading for the US Supreme Court.

Despite his misfortunes, Black's interest in the outside world hasn't flagged. His most recent column for the Canadian National Post, which he founded and which has stayed loyal, was a fascinating look at China: a nation which "oscillates between blustering confidence and acute self-consciousness, and between admiration of the West and seething resentment".

To a query from me about how he saw the US election, he wrote: "Despite all his operatics, Obama cannot open up a real lead on McCain, and I don't see how he deals with the facts that there is no recession: Iraq is a howling success and everything he has said about it is mistaken; he wants to raise the top tax rate to 64 per cent; and he sat for 20 years in a church, nodding happily at the ravings of father Jeremiah."

He keeps his spirits up in jail with reading, teaching, writing and religion.

As he put it in his email: "We soldier on."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards