OPINION

In his own words: The power to indict, and to destroy

CONRAD BLACK March 19 2007
OPINION

In his own words: The power to indict, and to destroy

CONRAD BLACK March 19 2007

In his own words: The power to indict, and to destroy

OPINION

My trial in Chicago is almost upon me, even as this is published. It is a great relief to be finally going to court on the main issues, and I have full faith in the outcome, which will allow Barbara and me to return to a

normal life in London and in Canada. After four years of pummelling from all directions, much of it below the belt, one wants to set the record straight. I’ve seen myself depicted as a greedy, flamboyant crook who stole money from his company to finance a pretentious lifestyle and feed the insatiable materialism of his harridan wife. An added fillip to this has been the notion that this theft has been at the expense not only of the shareholders, but of the journalists the company employed.

CONRAD BLACK

This monstrous caricature has been diluted in the U.S. and largely erased in Canada, as the controversy has received some serious analysis here, but in Britain it has been spoonfed to and amplified by journalists who had no appetite to do even the most basic research. Supposedly reputable journalism seemed like the tabloids, some of which scraped depths I had not seen before. I’m not going to reveal my defence, except to say that the charges are false and the poverty of them will be exposed in court. I know I am innocent of the allegations against me, as does almost anyone who actually knows me, and I am about to prove it.

My strenuous maintenance of my innocence, though, is widely viewed as “denial,” as it inconveniently contradicts the instant judgment that I was another corporate crook and a carrier of the Enron virus. I hope it will be useful to give some background to the case. American business was hit in the last decade with several terrible frauds, Enron among them, that wiped out scores of thousands of jobs and pensions and billions of dollars of stock market value, including the life savings of thousands of people. Public indignation was understandably considerable.

But, more than ever in commercial matters, the power to indict became the power to destroy. It has been wielded by a New Class of belligerent lawyers and supporting experts, using two features of the American legal system only pallidly replicated in the U.K. or Canada: the plea bargain, and the criminal prosecution of corporations.

Under the first, the prosecutors single out an individual, grill and threaten and harass him, and then offer a light treatment in exchange for denunciation of higher-ups, and roll upward through an organization as if toppling dominoes, until all fingers are pointed at the top. In our own case, the press has noted the defection of only one executive, for a minimalist sentence, despite pressures on others that the uninitiated cannot imagine. Innocent people can be hounded and threatened night and day, to compel them to accuse others and save themselves. Every possible aspect of a person’s life can be pried open and misrepresented in defamatory leaks to

‘Innocent people can be hounded night and day to compel them to accuse others’

the press. For our part, we will, if we must, demonstrate that even government-suborned perjury is hazardous.

As for the threat of criminal prosecution, what has befallen me could assail any controlling shareholder in the U.S., as the outrages inflicted on Maurice “Hank” Greenberg of AI G demonstrate. He built and controlled the greatest insurance business in the world over 40 years and was thrown out like a dead mouse when the attorney general of New York (now the governor) threatened to prosecute his directors if they did not remove the chairman. Companies can be completely destroyed by prosecution, as was the great accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, in an action the U.S. Supreme Court eventually determined to be illicit, after the company had collapsed, and nearly 100,000 people in dozens of countries had been disemployed.

Our company had a flourishing business. There had been no bankruptcy or lost jobs or pensions or life savings. The attack required the orchestrated hostility of the lower courts, security regulators and tax collectors, the entire lower echelon of constricting official harassment. This was achieved in large measure by the climate created by eager accomplices in the press, who turned our case instantly into a sort of journalistic Ponzi scheme in which lies and myths, fed by the prosecutors and their informants, were pyramided on top of each other to create a Manichaean epic.

It was a vintage American “shock and awe” campaign. Those in the crosshairs of the system are terrorized and exhausted by endless official impositions, cascading charges, confections of moral outrage, and slanders leaked to the press, without any chance to face and rebut actual charges, for years, while our reputations and careers are destroyed and our means relentlessly sapped. The companies we built became platforms for our enemies as they tormented us and filled their own pockets, to the general delight of, especially,

the British media.

In the name of protecting shareholders, some $250 million of their money (especially mine, as the largest shareholder) has been spent by the self-nominated and courtapproved protectors of the public shareholders. In the process, 70 per cent of the stock market value of our American company, and 90 per cent of the stock market value of our Canadian company, have been dissipated. The shareholding victims of it are finally becoming restless. My accusers took over and have largely ruined our companies, while grossly enriching themselves. I have involuntarily, as the chief shareholder, effectively been forced to pay to persecute myself.

It has been very tiresome, but also very informative, and surviving it in good heart and spirits has been rather reassuring. Phys-

ically, I feel as I did 35 years ago. Barbara and I have struggled through a great many difficulties almost every day. We have resumed writing, and despite this unholy onslaught, though there have been some disappointments, we have maintained almost all the friendships and possessions that we had valued. Our marriage is impregnable, and family relationships are even closer and more highly valued than they had been before.

THE PRESUMPTION of innocence is the basis of our criminal justice system in the U.K., Canada and the U.S., and the treatment of accused people is one of the most reliable criteria of the decency of any civilized society. In practice, the presumption of innocence in this case has been a risible fiction. And I believe that my bond, now $38 million, is the highest in U.S. history, illustrative of the frenzied and failed attempt by the U.S. government to prevent me from exercising the constitutionally guaranteed right to defend myself. (I have been able to finance my entire, very costly, defence. A particularly gratifying series of asset sales had to be conducted in the most difficult commercial circumstances I have known, fending off unheard-of numbers of bottomfeeders, hucksters and charlatans, as well as spurious official meddlers.)

From a public relations standpoint, we were fortunate in our opponent. Not everyone (including most Americans) loves the U.S. government. Constitutionally questionable American legislation directed against organized crime and terrorism is frequently misapplied against completely improbable people. Chunks of my assets in the U.S. were immobilized on the basis of these statutes. Proceedings were then stayed by being subsumed into new charges. Constitutional guarantees of due process, and against unlawful, uncompensated property seizure, and the assurance of the grand jury system, have not lived up to what I believe James Madison and his fellow authors of the U.S. constitution had in mind.

In our company, we built a fine business of quality products. But the creators of value were systematically and instantly demonized, and then the profiteers handed the task of trying to prove that we had acted illegally to the prosecutors, stretching out the time of their own self-enrichment, the prejudice to the shareholders, and the mockery of the presumption of innocence, to almost four years.

There is no chance of recovering the more than $250 million it cost to investigate everything that went on as we built up our companies (with the utmost probity, as the evidence will reveal). When we are acquitted, the question of the justification for this orgy of self-directed largesse will finally replace, as the real issue, the malignant canard of possible criminal behaviour by the present defendants. And my libel suits, the largest in Canadian history at over $3 billion, especially those against my accusers on the Hollinger special committee, which have been patiently waiting like racehorses at the starting gates, will finally proceed.

This current U.S. corporate climate is part of a pattern that is identifiable in American history. From the early and imperishable optimism of the country comes the notion

We were fortunate in our opponent. Not everyone loves the U.S. government.’

that any perceived wrong can be instantly put right by legislators. This regularly leads to extreme solutions more damaging than the problems they were meant to address.

Prohibition was based on the consensus that there was too much alcoholism in the United States. Alcohol was declared to be illegal, placing one of the country’s largest industries in the hands of gangsters. In the thirties, the desire not to be drawn into another European war was so great that neutrality legislation was adopted that would have made it impossible for the administration to make any moral distinction between Hitler and the British and French, had not the president been the most agile politician in the country’s history. In the late forties and early fifties, there was understandable concern about Communism in government and the film industry, but the best answer was not McCarthyism and the mindless persecution of people who had been social democrats at university.

Now there is concern about corporate ethics, but the current American response is to hound and monitor corporations and frighten their officers and directors. At the same time, the issue of distribution and disparity of wealth is a legitimate public policy question, but instead of it being made the subject of a serious debate, there is a policy of totemistic tokenism: wealthy defendants are to be sacrificially pursued and thrown to the mobs, or to the beasts in the coliseum, as if this addressed the issue of why such a rich country, with thousands of (mainly meritocratic) billionaires, has 40 million poor people. America’s wealthiest citizens dress in corduroy trousers and Viyella shirts, driving SUVs between campuses and junk-food emporia, to show that they are not really interested in money, other than to combat AIDS in developing countries and promote other charities. The executive class is muted and intimidated. The plea bargain system can crack almost anyone.

When the life I had worked for 35 years to

build came under attack from this source in 2003, there was nothing for it but to conduct an orderly retreat to a defensible perimeter in Canada, refinance myself, and await the point when human decency requires that people fighting against years of press abuse and government harassment have a right to be heard. Now, I have never felt so welcome in Canada.

I MUST ADD a word about the British media, which I knew. Some have commented that I must be upset that so many that accepted my hospitality have so assailed me. I never imagined I was buying anyone’s amiability, and the fact of being in someone’s home doesn’t oblige the visitor to be pleasant after they have left. I am a little more disappointed in the pompous self-levitations and in some cases rabid antagonism of people who obsequiously sought my favours, and often received them, and particularly of those whom I helped through personal crises of health, marriage breakups, financial problems, and even more personal matters.

Reading the British press comments on my travails, I am grateful for those who have recalled my times as a London newspaper chairman favourably. I note, though, that even some of my supporters confine their support to Daily Telegraph editorial matters and defer to the notion that I perhaps have

blotted my ledger financially, and feed the myth that my wife exercised an undue influence. She did her jobs, as editorial vice-president and columnist, conscientiously and discreetly, and was fiercely loyal to our journalists. Her professional scruples have been very sadly unrequited. She is a magnificent person and it would normally go without saying that she deserves better.

Even the well-disposed and intelligent have been gulled by the onslaught of American corporate McCarthyist propaganda. I see, in reviews of Tom Bower’s recent defamatory novel about my wife and me, that even fine publications like the Economist and the Fina?icial Times, while panning the book as any honest or even sane person would, assume that I am financially culpable and likely to go to jail. Until the emptiness of the charges is revealed, as they are about to be, these are the lies agreed upon, even by people untainted by malice, and innocently duped.

The British pay a heavy price for having national media that are so narrowly concentrated and uniform in their group-think, so conditioned to truckling to head boy, whether it’s an incumbent newspaper chairman, or any conventional wisdom. And they have gone on too long substituting stylistic flourish for research.

My impression is that the British national press bought almost completely into the theory that non-competition payments were fraudulent; that I had milked the Telegraph and starved it and its journalists to pay for an opulent life for myself; and that my wife was a force for extravagance, pretension and political extremism. As I have written, I invite everyone who is interested to observe the debunking of all such allegations when our enemies have to prove them, instead of just thriving off the gullibility of the ignorant and the malicious, using many of the levers of the U.S. government to disseminate their message.

I look back on my days at the Telegraph and Spectator with pleasure. I caught the end of the era of the newspaper and the individualistic newspaper chairman. We took over an insolvent enterprise and made it the greatest title in Europe and the highest quality and most-respected title in the U.K. Politically, I am proud of having gone all the way with Margaret Thatcher, and then with John Major, and of having supported Tony Blair at times, especially in Ulster. I am proud also of our role in assuring that the Conservative party did not fall into the hands of Euro-integrationists, and I think most Conservatives, and most British voters, would also be happy with that today.

The imbecility of much of official U.S. policy since I left the Telegraph, and the moral and military failure of Israel in Lebanon last year, make our views on the subject of those countries less presentable than they were when I was urging a more generous treatment of American and Israeli official policy than was then fashionable in the British media. I believe that they were the right opinions at the time. I am also proud of the Daily Telegraph's undoubted victory in the price war, where we retained our market-leading status despite a furious assault from News Corp.

In Canada, I’m proud that we gave the country a first-class written daily press, and an alternative to the orthodoxy of the longgoverning Liberal party and the incumbent national media. We helped importantly to unite the federal Conservatives, who are now governing very effectively. Above all, in both

Bower’s book plumbs profound depths of mendacity, libel and prosaic clumsiness’

countries, I am proud that we tried to separate comment from reporting, tried to be fair, and emphasized good writing. I wish all the titles well, and almost all those whom I knew in them. I liked the traditional newspaper business, and was faithful to its better standards, but I lost faith in it commercially and started to depart it in the late nineties, very advantageously. I had naturally not foreseen such a perturbed exit strategy.

THE FINAL NADIR in the plunge to defile my wife and me, the last lap in bilious and oafish defamation, and the last and lowest of the animals unleashed against me by News Corp., was Bower’s book. It plumbs profound depths of mendacity, libel and prosaic clumsiness. I have seen a great many libels, but I have never seen anything as contemptible as this. The most annoying of all Bower’s infamies were his attacks on my wife, and on my parents, who have been dead for 30 years. Barbara is falsely accused of being slatternly, screeching, fanatical and money-grubbing, and my father of being an unscrupulous, bigoted drunkard and failed executive. Barbara is a perfect wife and a fine writer who has never raised her voice in her adult life. My father was a universally respected and utterly honest and tolerant man, an original and decent person of high intellect and a marvellous sense of humour, which an hour’s research would have verified.

To be fair, Bower engages in no-fault, equal opportunity disparagement. Henry Kissinger

and Lord Carrington, William F. Buckley and George Will, were all gulled or bought: my directors were failed fiduciaries, and the highly capable Marie-Josée Kravis, now president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is a “scatterbrain.” I was amused to be described by an unnamed source as a “wooden bulldozer” (it reminded me of Andrei Gromyko’s description of Anwar Sadat as a “paper camel”). Less acceptable was Bower’s criticism of my book on Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has been well-received, for excessive reliance on secondary sources. That is bunk in itself, but especially hard to take from this myth-making sleaze-merchant. His book comes close to Mary McCarthy’s famous review of Lillian Heilman, that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

I prefer to take the flattering opinions Bower expressed to me in his obsequious

emails in his unsuccessful quest for an interview, which will be produced in court, along with a great deal of other evidence he will find uncongenial. Since I have sued him, I will not argue the case here, but anyone who wants to see my very extensive statement of claim, detailing scores of distinct libels, should know that it is a matter of public record.

But here again, the fetid solidarity of Fleet Street is evident. While most of the London reviews were negative, most also subscribed to some version of the Big Lie about financial chicanery, while acknowledging that I had saved the Telegraph from insolvency and strengthened it as a product in the hands of the readers. By contrast, American and Canadian reviewers have been almost universally censorious of the author. A distinguished Canadian law professor wrote that “Bower has the unusual knack of eavesdropping on prayer: ‘Black would consult the Almighty and be reassured that whatever course of life he decided upon—any plan, ruse, or conspiracy—would improve mankind.’ One wonders if Bower would like to see God indicted as a co-conspirator.” Another eminent law professor wrote that it was a “drive-by smear.” The New York Times called it “a sad little... squeak;” the Globe and Mail “an assassination.”

I have never had the slightest doubt of the outcome of a fair trial, knowing that the judgment of the legality of my actions will lie in the hands of 12 American citizens, in one of that country’s greatest cities, more or less at the bar of Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow. Those with any interest will soon be able to determine whether the braying, hideous tricoteuses among my accusers, especially in the British press, the prosecutors’ most obedient cheering section, or my supporters and I, have spoken the truth. It will be a relief to expose my accusers and their parrots and their false charges.

Barbara and I look forward to returning to London when I have been vindicated, later this year, and then dividing our time between London and Canada. There is life after the Telegraph, as increasing numbers of people are discovering, and personnel depart my successor regime in droves. I will note some of the constructive remarks of some British commentators, and promise to be more observant of British sensibilities, though I thought I got on well with almost everyone I actually knew there, and our British friends have been splendid in their solidarity. After all that has happened in the last four years, and no longer having much to do with the media, we will be ready for a quieter life. We think of our return happily at the end of each full day, grateful though we are to be in Canada. Being falsely accused may be characterbuilding, but it is not much fun. M