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Sunday 30 November 2008

Pardon me, Mr President, but I'm entirely innocent 

'SORRY for my late reply," Conrad Black emailed a few weeks ago. "Both Barbara and I have been horrifyingly busy, as I am finishing and she is editing my forthcoming book about these unutterable travails I have endured, and we are right on deadline."

He's certainly busy: in the last few weeks he's popped up in the British intellectual magazine Standpoint, learnedly reviewing a study of Americans and the British monarchy, has written about the US election in columns in the Canadian National Post, blogged on Tina Brown's fashionable Daily Beast and provided Spears Wealth Management Survey, a new magazine for the super-rich, with a prison diary (of which extracts were published last week in the Sunday Times, along the lines of what he wrote here in the Sunday Independent in September).

And, of course, there are the classes for fellow inmates of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida in English and American history, and emails to the outside world. At present, communication is via his secretary, but soon he'll be permitted direct contact with specified people: I'm being vetted by the US Bureau of Prisons.

Oh, yes. And there are his legal battles and now his attempts to have George W Bush pardon him.

Having become pro-Black, whom I once disliked, after covering his trial at long distance, I'm of course delighted that he's putting himself about like this, not least because it annoys people who deserve to be annoyed.

He's attacked for failing to admit his guilt, but since he thinks he's innocent (and I agree with him), why should he? "Conrad Black enjoying his life as a jailbird" sniffed one headline objecting to his prison diary, which seems a rather harsh reaction to an indomitable chap's attempt to make the best of things.

There are complaints about the way he writes -- his "orotundity", as one critic put it. Well, I'll admit that his prose style can be on the baroque side, but that's part of its charm, along with the punchiness of his opinions.

"Isn't opinion in the UK somewhat astounded that the entire banking system simply collapsed into the arms of HMG?" he asked me. "Even those rapacious idiots on Wall Street did better than that, despite being marched at bayonet point into the valley of the shadow of death by the even more rapacious and idiotic legislators."

Obama, he remarked, "may be having an out-of-body life-enhancing experience in utterly basic economics".

The man is an intellectual of the old school, so I upset him by reporting that I was moving and needed to get rid of the majority of my books.

"Throwing out thousands of books is a nightmarish thought. Can't you just get a bunch of Ikea cupboards and stash the less frequently consulted ones there? I never throw out a book, which is why I have 30,000 of them."

Not in jail, he doesn't, but -- as ever -- his hopes of getting out are high, though it now rests on George W, who uses his power to pardon sparingly.

Black certainly has a high-risk approach to influencing those at the top. "US justice has become a command economy based on the avarice of private prison companies," he wrote in his prison diary, "a gigantic prison service industry, and politically influential correctional officers' unions agitating for an unlimited increase in the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences. The entire 'War on Drugs' by contrast is a classic illustration of supply side economics: a trillion taxpayers' dollars squandered, and a million small fry imprisoned at a cost of $50bn a year, as supply of and demand for illegal drugs have increased, prices have fallen, and product quality has improved."

"I much enjoyed your robust piece," I emailed, "though I'm not sure President Bush would have."

"I don't see what complaint George W would have with it," responded Black. "Anyway, one does what one must. We soldier on, like those people in the Irish national anthem (isn't it about three soldiers on their way home who keep encountering Black and Tans or B Specials or something and have to get their retaliation in first and kill a lot of people?)."

So far, in his first round of end-of-term presidential pardons and sentence-commutations, Bush has restricted himself to 17 small-time criminals. Black's chances are rated lower than I think they are, for, as Black keeps pointing out, he won 85 per cent of his case and he's not alone in believing the prosecution was vindictive.

Possibly more important is that Bush reads history, and Black is a distinguished historian whose biography of Richard Nixon has done much to remind the political world of the achievements of that disgraced president.

Bearing in mind his present deep unpopularity, Bush might think that this is no time to keep revisionists behind bars.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards