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Sunday 28 October 2012

Black is back -- let's hear his side of the story

Conrad Black's critics should open their minds and read his account of his recent travails, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I was in University College Cork last Monday opposing leader of the opposition Micheal Martin in a debate about the centenary of 1916: (he wants to celebrate; I want to commemorate; I lost). I saw, too late, a friend's text telling me Conrad Black was on BBC's Newsnight. "How was he?" I asked. "Let's say he was lively. A spirited attack on US justice system, but you like him or you don't."

There's no arguing with that. I like him, but I keep having to justify it.

It's almost six years since I idly mentioned to our mutual friend, journalist and writer John O'Sullivan (once the London correspondent for RTE), that I couldn't stand either Black or his wife, Barbara Amiel, and that the charges against him seemed uncontrovertible. John responded that, if I knew them, I might feel differently and that he believed Black was innocent.

I then remembered that I had always thought Black a model newspaper proprietor and had been an admirer of his wife's journalism, so those achievements should be put in the balance.

So, in my first article about him here -- in March 2007 at the beginning of the court case -- I assumed he was probably guilty, but said a few kind things. I covered the case -- at a distance, but thoroughly -- and came to admire his courage in refusing to take the easy way out by plea bargaining. I was also appalled by what appeared to be the vindictiveness of the prosecution, and concluded that the process was a travesty of justice. While he beat most of the charges, he was sentenced to six years.

John sent Conrad my second article, headlined "Sneaking sympathy turns to mourning", and I emailed Black to ask why Cardinal Newman (the founder of UCD, my alma mater) was his inspiration and comfort. His answer was courteous, thoughtful and so well-informed as to send me scurrying back to Newman in the hope of keeping my end up.

We've exchanged emails about this and that ever since, and I've written extensively about his appeals, his failures and his triumphs. He's had all but two of his convictions overturned and fights on to clear his sheet completely.

The morning after Newsnight, the press reported that Black, who had landed in London to publicise A Matter of Principle, his account of his recent travails, had been in a serious verbal punch-up with his interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, whom he'd called a "fool". But before I could watch the programme, I caught his interview on Sky with Adam Boulton.

Now, Boulton is mild-mannered, so I was slightly alarmed that Black was being so. . . ahem. . . trenchant. "I'm here selling books, not to answer your somewhat predictable questions," was somewhat dismissive, as was telling Boulton he'd forgotten his name. But then I caught up with the Paxman programme and realised that what was infuriating Black was that neither interviewer was prepared to consider even the possibility that he might be innocent.

Apparently indignant that Black was failing to show repentance, Paxman said: "You're a criminal." "You're a fool," responded Black. "You're a priggish, gullible, British fool." He also said that he was proud of himself for being able "to endure a discussion like this without getting up and smashing your face in". Invited to try, he explained with a smile that he wouldn't, since he disapproved of violence.

I went to Black's launch party on Wednesday night and met, for the first time, the warm, polite man with whom I'd corresponded. One of his old friends and I fretted about how he'd survive Have I Got News For You on Friday night. Conrad's weapon of choice is a mace: the HIGNFY team use stilettos.

They did, but as they derided him as a fraudster, a convict, a criminal and a liar, he kept his dignity, smiled and landed the odd hefty blow.

His detractors should open their minds and read his book, where they would learn plenty to dismay them about the American justice system, not least that we should be wary of plea bargaining. It has its place, but when it's institutionalised, as it has been in the US, it bribes or intimidates even innocent suspects to plead guilty and sell down the river those who won't. As Black keeps pointing out, it's shocking that, in the US, 97 per cent of prosecutions end in guilty pleas and 85 per cent of those who go to trial are convicted.

Group-think, the herd mentality, call it what you will, is unhealthy, and it's shocking to see it shown by intelligent people who are supposed to be intellectually curious. You don't have to like Black, but his views on justice and on prison reform are worth listening to. So, incidentally, are mine on why we would be wrong to celebrate 1916.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards