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Sunday 3 July 2011

Black is unbowed by latest episode in prison drama

The former media magnate's fine words won't be lost on readers of his memoir, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE American columnist David Frum last week recalled a six-hour prison visit to Conrad Black. "Surrounded by bars and walls, his spirit was as effervescent as ever . . . He told hilarious stories of prison life, including a meeting with a convicted mobster who greeted him as a 'fellow industrialist'."

When Frum's wife asked him how it had gone, Frum said: "I'd have been utterly depressed if Conrad had not worked so hard to cheer me up."

I felt utterly depressed when I heard that Judge St Eve had reduced Black's sentence from 78 months to 42, not just to the already served 29 his supporters had hoped for. I wrote dejectedly to him, but his response indeed cheered me up.

"That sentence was about what we expected and will only be a little over seven months, in fact. The system is unable to acknowledge that the case was unfounded and should never have been taken, and this was the least the judge could do and still claim there had been any case, while giving me credit for my performance as a prisoner, and thus claiming that prison had made me 'a better person'. (Maybe it did, but not radically so)."

With his customary bullishness, he assured me: "Considering the correlation of forces between the USA and Conrad Black, I feel it has gone quite well, especially with the libel victory over the authors of the Special Committee Report, and Barbara and I are looking forward to the certain end of this infamous charade in March. The acknowledgement by the court that it will finally return the $6.5m (€4.5m) the prosecutors stole on the ex parte seizure of the condo sale proceeds in 2006 was also a good barometric sign, and useful in itself."

(To disentangle that. You get around 10 per cent off your sentence for good behaviour, so that reduces the 42 substantially. Black has just settled several complex civil cases against him based on the report of the Special Committee of the board of Hollinger International in 2004 that accused him of having led a '$500m corporate kleptocracy,' as well as the libel case he took against the committee's

counsel, Richard Breedon, and the other authors of the report. Black benefits to the tune of several millions, which is just as well considering his horrendous legal expenses).

Black also sent me his speech from the dock, in which he said: "I never ask for mercy and seek no one's sympathy." It was too late to ask for justice, but he did ask the judge "to avoid injustice". Which she didn't. For, as he pointed out, the two counts that remain on his record are "very threadbare".

"Is it really conceivable to you," he asked, "that if I were inexplicably seized with the ambition to embezzle $285,000, I would have it ratified by a committee and then,

after what the minutes of the meeting described as 'extensive discussion,' by the whole board? I would have to have been mad."

The more serious charge was the obstruction of justice. Black, his secretary and his lawyer have always contended that he was unaware that there was a Chicago court order preventing him from removing papers from his Canadian office. That he and his chauffeur had removed them in full view of his own security cameras suggested innocence to me, as did the fact that he could easily have smuggled out incriminating documents over the preceding weeks. "To remove documents improperly in this way," he told the judge, "I would have had to be barking, raving mad, and insanity is almost the only failing of which the prosecutors have not accused me."

I laughed when I read the so Conradian paragraph in which Black addressed the prosecutors' demand that he be punished for his lack of remorse for the crimes he believed he hadn't committed. "I concluded many years ago in my brief stint as a candidate psychoanalyst that it is practically impossible to repress conscientious remorse. And I concluded some years later in reading some of the works of the recently beatified Cardinal Newman that our consciences are a divine impulse speaking within us, as Newman wrote, 'powerful, peremptory and definitive'. My conscience functions like that of other people, and I respond to it, if not precisely as my accusers would wish. But they are prosecutors, not custodians of the consciences of those whom they accuse."

The fine words seemed lost on the judge; no matter. Black will go back to jail next month where he intends to get fit and plan the next stage of his war against an unjust legal system. His memoir A Matter of Principle -- trailed as being 'unflinchingly revealing' -- is to be published in the autumn. I doubt Richard Breedon and Black's other enemies are looking forward to it much.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards