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Sunday 25 July 2010

Black may be brash, but he shouldn't be demonised

Out on bail, the former media tycoon has returned to his loyal wife, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'Inmate 18330424 -- Black, Conrad M', explained an email from the inmate-messaging service on Wednesday evening, 'no longer has access to the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System; therefore, he/she may not send or receive messages.'

So, with great pleasure, I amended my records to revert to the address I had used before March 3, 2008, the day Conrad Black entered Florida's Coleman Federal Correctional Complex to serve a 60-year sentence. He is out on bail now and even those who hate him most and hope he will be retried and found guilty doubt that he is likely to go back to jail.

Just for now, Black's well-wishers should be leaving him alone to revel in his reunion with Barbara Amiel, who over the past seven years has disappointed so many ill-wishers because of her dogged loyalty to the embattled husband whom they believed she would abandon to his fate.

They are crazy about each other. He once exhibited the Canadian brashness that made him suspect with the English by writing in the Daily Telegraph an impassioned article on the wonders of women's legs, with particular reference to those of his wife.

Contempt and loathing for the Blacks became fashionable when he fell foul of the law. Suddenly, to suggest that he might be innocent became as unpopular in bien-pensant circles as it is these days to query if climate change is really man-made.

Yet even if she was the "clothes-crazy, sexual predator" portrayed in the media, Amiel wrote once, and Black "the arrogant and pompous caricature of the books and films depicting him," would that "justify the twisting of due process by the legal system? If Dreyfus had been a loud and vulgar Jew, instead of an officer and a gentleman Jew, would his case have been any the less important or his persecution less unjust?"

As so often, this brilliant journalist got to the nub of an issue. What matters is the principle, not the person.

When the fatwa was put on Salman Rushdie, Mrs Thatcher, who couldn't stand him, didn't hesitate to commit huge sums to his protection.

I had unthinkingly gone along with the media demonisation of the Blacks but that didn't stop me deciding he was being badly treated. That I came to like him later is irrelevant. To quote his wife again, in a phrase that was widely ridiculed but seems to me incontrovertible: 'If the rich and well connected cannot get justice, what chance for anyone else?"

She wrote of "the orange jump-suited, marginalised young men I saw shuffling in front of the judge in Chicago, silent while their court-appointed attorneys negotiated their freedom away in that little legal world where a client's fate never disturbs the bonhomie between lawyers.

"If ostensibly privileged defendants like us can be baselessly smeared, wrongfully deprived, falsely accused, shamelessly persecuted, innocently convicted and grotesquely punished, it doesn't take much to figure out what happens to the vulnerable, the powerless, the working-class people whose savings have been eaten up trying to defend themselves.

"They land, finally, in the 8.45am courtroom parade that takes place all over 'America the Free', the country that 'wins' 90 per cent of cases and imprisons more people than any other in the world."

That impassioned indictment of the American legal system appeared in July 2008, after Black's appeal had been turned down. Though Black fought on, Amiel, the self-confessed "pessimistic little Jew", had little hope that he could beat the system and she found their separation crushing.

Recently, she told him she was not looking forward to her scary birthday next December (she will be 70 -- Black is four years younger) "and he gave me one of those very today responses about our golden years that lie ahead."

Now, the birthday will seem less scary. Having him home will be no rest cure, though. While the American legal system adjusts to the implications of Black's success in the Supreme Court, he is busy on several fronts.

In addition to a possible retrial, there are innumerable relevant lawsuits pending, including a massive claim against both Blacks by Hollinger Inc, his old company; his challenge against the tax authorities' demand for $71m on income Black maintains was not taxable in the US and his $872m libel suit against -- among others -- Richard Breeden, author of the report that alleged Black ran a "corporate kleptocracy".

There are his memoirs, tentatively scheduled for the autumn and bound to be explosive. There will be decisions as to where to live and how to reintegrate into society. And I expect him to emulate Jonathan Aitken, the Tory minister who was jailed for perjury, by becoming a champion of prison reform.

Whatever he does, he will not be doing it quietly.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards