Calling Conrad Black names

Conrad Black There is nothing that satisfies envy like sticking it to the rich and powerful. News stories of media baron Conrad Black are peppered with the loaded words "ruthless", "greedy" and "arrogant." You can sense the reporter salivating when you read "Conrad Black could spend the rest of his life in jail."

There are already demands that Black be stripped of Canada's highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada.

I call this kicking a man when he's down. After all, Conrad Black was found not guilty by jury on July 13 in a Chicago court on nine charges of tax fraud and racketeering. The 62-year-old media empire builder was found guilty of four lesser charges: obstruction of justice (the same crime that sent Martha Stewart to jail for five months) and three counts of mail fraud. He still faces up to a maximum of 35 years in jail, along with three colleagues also found guilty of taking illegal payments from their newspaper company in two schemes that amount to US$6.1 million. But Black is appealing the decision based on evidence that casts serious doubt on his convictions. If he wins, a lot of work will have to be done by a lot of people to restore the man's reputation. They likely will not show up for the job.

The Conrad Black case reminds me that we are never that far from the playground. When one is charged, the name calling begins. 

Whether Black is guilty or not is something most people will never know because most of us don't look past the headline, the sound bite, the water cooler chatter of "Hey, did you hear that…?" In the end, many things, issues and people, are summed up, rightly or wrongly, in a few juicy catchwords. Margaret Thatcher was the "Iron lady", Ronald Reagan was the "Teflon president", and Pope John Paul II was the "people's pope".

Modifiers also work the other way. U.S. President George W. Bush is the "idiot", Mel Gibson is "Mad Mel", and Conrad Black is "ruthless", "greedy" and "arrogant". Are they accurate? Test scores ranked Bush among the top 16 per cent of applicants entering college -- hardly dummy territory. Mel Gibson is unlikely mad, having produced one of the highest grossing movies of all time in The Passion of the Christ and then followed it up with another winner, Apocalypto. Conrad Black could also be described as "persevering", "ambitious" and "erudite".

The entire Black trial has been soaked in slogans and emotive language: "kleptocracy", "cooked books", "looting", "thief". Said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "A good catchword can obscure analysis for 50 years."

It cannot, though, eclipse Black's amazing story. A rich Montreal boy buys his first newspaper, The Sherbrooke Record, in Quebec, at age 25, and ends up heading Hollinger International, one of the world's most influential newspaper companies, owning greats like Britain's The Daily Telegraph, Canada's The National Post, The Chicago-Sun Times and The Jerusalem Post. He marries a well-known Canadian columnist, Barbara Amiel, on whom he lavishes a US$40,000 birthday party, a $2.1 million ring and many other expensive gifts.

He works at improving his newspapers and their writing standards, while writing his own columns - MercatorNet linked to one this year under Media Watch - and influential biographies of such figures as US presidents Roosevelt and Nixon. The Canadian left-wing media hate him for his socially conservative views and use his spending habits to back up their claims of bombast, arrogance and greed.

It is so easy and tempting to gleefully call a rich man a thief. The plot thickens when you read the journalists who defend him. They are not few and far between and they defend him with great vigour. For the record: when the truth is A, the fact that four people or 12 say the truth is B does not make it so. Yet, typically, when a businessman rightly goes to jail his friends don't stand on the courthouse steps arguing the merits of the case. They are usually first out the door to avoid the embarrassment of guilt by association. This makes the most interesting columns the ones that champion the man.

But some of these guys have worked for Black, you say. Sure, but so did those at The Chicago Sun-Times who wrote: "Everyone who worked under the trying regime of Conrad Black is breathing a great sigh of relief."

You would think Toronto columnist George Jonas would be snickering now. Jonas's first wife is now married to Black. But the two are friends and Jonas still stands by him, in fact spending much time with Black in Chicago during the trial. Jonas writes: "The evidence didn't support the contention that Conrad and his co-defendants defrauded the shareholders. The prosecutors' solution was to switch tack after resting their case. Never mind the evidence, they told the jury in their closing statements. Forget the paper trail. Just follow the money, and whoever got it, convict him."

Before the trial began, the prosecution team declared that Black and three partners had looted billions of dollars from their own company. In the end, the amount was whittled down to $6.1m, and all based on one witness, another Black partner and former close friend, who agreed to testify that he came up with the idea, in order to serve a lesser sentence. It is highly suspicious when the man testifying against you does so to save his own skin. There were no other witnesses. No victims took the stand.

The charges of obstruction of justice were based on 13 boxes removed from Black's office, contravening a court order. The contents, however, had already been reported to the proper authorities, writes Catholic priest Raymond DeSouza in The National Post, the paper that Black founded. We all like to think the law is on the up and up, but "I have spent too much time visiting prisons to have such illusions", DeSouza writes.

But innocent on all charges? DeSouza adds: "The jury was never likely to buy the only other alternative, which most Americans would consider an even greater implausibility - namely, that the prosecutorial state would bring dubious charges backed only by witnesses pressured by the same overbearing state."

Very quickly Duke University comes to mind, and three white, affluent lacrosse players charged with raping a black stripper, who in the end had never seen the young men before and later wasn't even sure that rape had occurred. The racial tension in the story made headlines for months across the United States last year. Turned out that the prosecuting attorney wanted to score points with black voters and hoped to drag the case out until after he was elected to a higher post. The case imploded before it got to trial. The prosecuting attorney was hauled before a disciplinary committee. But not before the lacrosse students were vilified and torn to pieces. They were suspended from school. Their coach was fired. They broke down in tears in public and their parents were forced to dig deep into their pockets for lawyers. Black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, were quick to denounce the young white men long before the smell of a trial.

None of this is to say Black is innocent. But it does give one pause before passing judgment. Canadian columnist David Warren wrote that the guilty verdicts in the Conrad Black case made sense after a friend explained how the legal system operates. "In the USA judicial system, prosecutors play upon the American preference for compromise. They make an array of charges so that the jury will feel comfortable convicting on some and dismissing others. This is called being fair and balanced."

Mark Steyn, one of the western world's favourite conservative columnists, who was in the courtroom each day, noted: "The US Attorney's office might usefully adopt as its motto the IRA's message to Mrs Thatcher after the Brighton bombing - 'You have to be lucky every time. We only have to be lucky once.'"

As for those 13 boxes, Steyn argues: "The new bosses at Hollinger Inc. had decided to evict him (Black) and (secretary) Joan and the rest of the old gang, and with just a week to go she'd been packing up. Yes, there was paperwork relating to the disputed transactions, copies of which every interested party already had in triplicate. But there were also a lot of personal effects. And when Joan told him a security guard had prevented her from taking the stuff out, even though the new chief executive of Hollinger Inc. had given her permission, Conrad Black drove down to 10 Toronto Street for the first and last time since his removal as chairman."

Wrote the editor of The New York Sun, Seth Lipsky: "Conrad Black is one of the greatest newspapermen of his, or any, time - and, in my own career, he has been an inspiring partner and friend… He was found guilty - albeit partly on the testimony that an admitted swindler gave in exchange for a lighter sentence - of mail fraud and obstruction of justice. From what I know of the circumstances, I would have voted to acquit."

The Conrad Black case reminds me that we are never that far from the playground. When one is charged, the name calling begins. This case may be about a man with his hand in the cookie jar. But they might be his cookies. The calls for Black's head and his Order or Canada must wait until all the cards have been played.

Patrick Meagher is MercatorNet's Contributing Editor for Canada.


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