Conrad Black is free. Well, technically
he’s been released from prison on bail with various restrictions applied but
the main point is that the man is not now locked away and looks likely to gain
his complete liberty and perhaps expunge most if not all of his convictions.
I don’t pretend to understand the bulk of
the legal niceties and nuances of the case but I do know that when I dined with
Lord Black in Toronto a few days before the start of his trial he was utterly
convinced, and convincing, of his complete innocence and equally certain that
he would not be found guilty of anything at all. On the latter he was wrong.
I, however, am a pretty good judge of
character and an even better one of logic and common sense – there is no way
Conrad Black could have possessed sufficient self-confidence or self-delusion
to have sat with me eating and drinking for four hours explaining how he was an
innocent man unless he was certain that he was.
A particular aspect of the American legal
system thought differently and the newspaper proprietor, businessman,
philanthropist and author has been in prison for more than two years. He wrote
a first-class newspaper column from jail and maintained an e-mail
correspondence with friends and well-wishers. What everybody, even enemies,
agreed upon was his extraordinary courage throughout the entire episode. No
self-pity, no anger but plenty of resentment at a legal culture that he has now
seen to be flawed and often absurd.
It has to be said that even those who
detest Black have acknowledged the utter waste of talent and time keeping such
a person in prison when he could have lived out his sentence performing a
public service. Instead he performed one within prison and taught other
prisoners history. They were fortunate. He is a world-class historian.
There are rapists, child-abusers, violent
thugs and drug dealers who are not sentenced as harshly as was Black – he was
given six-and-a-half years – and it does seem that ambitious lawyers were
intent in playing out some David and Goliath scenario with someone who in truth
is more the former than the latter. Remember, as a conservative and as a Roman
Catholic he took on the establishment and beat it at its own game. It will be
fascinating to see what he does now and in the coming year. This should, as
they say, be great fun.
My first memory of Conrad Black was being
invited to a dinner at his sumptuous house in Toronto. It was more than 16
years ago and my wife had recently given birth to our third child. I told
Conrad that I was flattered to be asked but that I didn’t want to leave my wife
at home on her own with a baby and two small children. “Quite right and nor
should you”, he replied. “Which is why we want you to bring your wife and the
baby and when the little fellow sleeps we’ll have a nanny sit by him downstairs
to make sure he’s fine and to come and get Bernadette if he wakes.” Which is
not entirely typical of multi-millionaire media magnates.
More than this, he treated all three of us
with a grace and kindness that is extremely uncommon. It was, in fact, an
example of the gentleman at work. We were made to feel at ease, as though we
belonged and as if a tiny baby at a grand dinner was as natural as sunshine on
a summer’s day.
When he published his autobiography he
asked me if I thought he had devoted too much time and space in the book to his
faith and his religious journey. It was a question soaked in vulnerability,
almost in innocence. Here was I a mere journalist being asked by someone who
employed journalists, thousands of them, to pass comment on a writing decision.
I told him he had done the right thing, knowing – and this is important – that
it was entirely acceptable for me to say the opposite.
I also recall a disagreement we had had and
how after this a mutual friend had asked me to attend a book launch party at
Black’s home. I told the friend that it might be awkward for both parties and
he said he’d make discreet inquiries. The response that came back was along the
lines of, “Don’t be so bloody
silly. Coren will always be welcome in my home!”
Many people in Canadian and indeed world
media circles, of course, have a profoundly different view of the character
they describe as the Darth Vader of international media. Some of these critics
appeared to take a perverse glee in the man’s misfortunes and when he went to
prison there was a gruesome carnival atmosphere on the part of more than a
handful of the political left.
For journalists to have reacted this way
was especially irksome. Conrad Black had founded a new daily national newspaper
in Canada, the National Post, that is still going strong and he also maintained
a monthly magazine in the country that would otherwise have died and has done
so since he left it. A whole chain of daily and weekly papers was rejuvenated
by a figure who dared to be conservative as well as clever. He gave journalists
jobs for goodness sake! Similarly in Britain with the Telegraph group and in
Israel, Australia, the United States and elsewhere he may have been a
hard-nosed businessman but he also created opportunities that would otherwise
have never existed.
He would probably not discuss it but I know
that he also pumped money into unprofitable publications simply because he
thought they deserved to be in print. He loved and loves the whole process of
writing, editing and publishing; of changing the world by reporting on it and
fighting over ideas and ideology and philosophy. This is rare for modern media
owners and terrifying to an old guard who like their bosses to sign the cheques
but not read the articles.
Black did mention to me before his trial
and subsequent incarceration that he was no longer interested in print as such
but in the internet and that he had the finances and the desire to create
something new. Whether he has changed his mind or not I don’t know but it would
be a fool who would assume we’ve heard the last of Conrad Black. He’s about to
begin a new journey and from what we hear he’s more determined than ever to
prove the moaners and the whiners wrong and shake the media up just a little.
Glad you’re back, Conrad. Knew you would
Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in