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Sunday 30 October 2011

Gloves off as Black lands sucker punch on Murdoch

The former press baron has every right to be angry at his portrayal in Murdoch-owned press, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

CONRAD BLACK has declared war on Rupert Murdoch, and, really, Murdoch had it coming. Black liked to be friends with other newspaper proprietors. As the controlling shareholder of Telegraph newspapers, he was plunged into an epic battle for survival when Murdoch slashed the price of the Times newspapers, but he regarded that as legitimate commercial practice, and their personal and social relationship remained civil.

Nor did he complain about Murdoch's habit of protesting every time anything reflecting unfavourably on him appeared in any Black-controlled publication, and wrote of him supportively when he almost went bankrupt in 1990.

Black has his failings -- to most of which he freely admits in A Matter of Principle, his brutally honest memoir of his turbulent run-in with American injustice -- but there is nothing petty about him.

So he was shocked when after his legal difficulties began eight years ago, the Murdoch press "swung into vitriolic defamatory mode" -- alleging crimes of which he hadn't even been accused. He would later learn that having assured Black he would have the coverage toned down, Murdoch had instead 'stoked up the media lynch mob'. As Black says, in Britain "the media assassination squads ruled the coverage". With no balance in the press, I was one of the many readers who at the time assumed Black must be guilty of massive fraud. It was through following the case closely that I came to believe he was an innocent victim. I don't see how anyone could read his latest book and think otherwise.

Black was furious with Murdoch, but he tried to be

fair: when Murdoch got into trouble over the hacking scandal, Black wrote of him as "a great, bad man". Now, however, he wants to get even.

Back in jail to serve the remainder of his sentence, he erupted when Murdoch's recently acquired American flagship, the distinguished Wall Street Journal, featured him in a rogues' gallery of five "corporate criminals", which included Bernie Madoff, who stole around $65bn. What particularly riled Black was that the paper seemed to have forgotten that in 2010, when two more of the counts against him had been struck down and his sentence reduced to three-and-a-half years, the WSJ had apologised to him for having underestimated the strength of his defence. Since Black had put his health and fortune on the line to prove his innocence, since the original 17 counts are down to two, one an allegation of a $285,000 fraud and the other a patently absurd charge of obstructing justice, he had reason to be incandescent.

As he put it last week in an email: "My cardiological condition required that I abandon unilateral verbal disarmament after the WSJ pretended my counts had not been vacated (for which they congratulated me at the time), and assimilated me to Madoff."

So in the Huffington Post last week he let fly at Murdoch -- whose company "has been stripped naked as the lawless hypocritical organisation it has long been". The extent of Murdoch's "skulduggery" had finally "oozed out, sluggish and filthy".

Black is truly a master of invective: one enemy is described as resembling "a regional commissar of Beria's, with the bloodless, piscine coldness of someone whose power vastly exceeded his intelligence". Murdoch won't answer back, but while his hand is on the tiller -- which it is likely to be for another year -- Black will probably have a rough time in his press. It's made him feel better, though.

Having had four months of bliss on bail, Black returned uncomplainingly. He will be free on May 5 and will leave America, with which he had a long love affair that turned very, very sour. I asked him if he had a message for this side of the Atlantic Ocean and he replied in true Conradian style: "Cancel your extradition treaties with this country. If Herman Cain can't save America, the next four years may have you and me trying to reactivate Lindisfarne."

I'm with him on most of this: the UK has a ludicrously imbalanced extradition treaty with the US, and, of the Republican contenders for the presidency, businessman Cain is at present the most attractive. However, persuasive though he is, Conrad is unlikely to get me to join him in trying to revive Celtic Christianity, if that's what he's got in mind. Still, I look forward to seeing him back in London with his reputation restored: it will give him particular pleasure that no one here now wants to know Rupert Murdoch.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards