Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Friend, the Shape-Shifting Reptilian, Part II

The truth is that I was uncharacteristically nervous. Maybe it was Hitler glowering at me from the opposite corner, or just the sheer unusualness of the situation, or maybe just the intimacy. But whatever it was, I was nervous.

I made a couple of little jokes and then, standing in the living room corner with everyone focusing on me, I rolled into an old Kinks song called "The Village Green", just me and my acoustic guitar. Knowing that journalist Mark Steyn, the guest of honor, was a big fan of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes, I next played a song I wrote a few years ago called "Ain't It Grand", which sounds like a Gershwin or Cole Porter song. Lastly I played "She's So High", said thanks, and that was it.

Everyone was quite gracious, but I didn't think I'd done particularly well. It had been easier playing to 40,000 people every night on the Bryan Adams tour.

Anyway, I spent the rest of the night chatting with guests, including National Review writer John O'Sullivan, National Post editor Jonathan Kay, and writer Linda Frum. Finally, I fell into conversation with Lord Black and Mark Steyn. Actually, I fell into the role of observer of conversation between them, for Lord Black's daughter Alanna and I didn't say much...but Black and Steyn chatted at length about Australia, newspapers, and Lord Black's upcoming trial.

Yes....the trial. You see, Lord Black had already been charged by US prosecutors with fraud while serving as director of newspaper conglomerate Hollinger International. Black insisted then, as he later would in public, that he had done nothing wrong at all and that the whole case was a sham. He predicted aquittal, and it didn't seem like he was putting on a show.

Months later, Black's trial started in Chicago, and I watched fairly closely. It did seem that the prosecutors were on a trophy hunt, and that Black's lawyers pretty much sucked...and when the dust settled, Black was convicted on several counts. And just last week he was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison.

The case is now on appeal, and it wouldn't surprise me if some, or even all, of the convictions were overturned. Whatever Black may or may not have done, I just have not been able to see how the evidence met the burden of proof. And as for the notorious removal of documents from the Hollinger office in Toronto - I simply can't understand, nor has anyone been able to explain to me, how Conrad Black could be convicted in a US court under US law and sent to a US prison for violating an Ontario judge's court order while he was in Canada.

And of course, there is something even more Shakespearean about Black's fall from the top of the business world into a cell in a Florida penitentiary.

During the tenure of Prime Minister of Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party, the Canadian Conservative Party was in disarray. To make a long story short, for years, the only real viable national opposition to the ruling Liberal Party was Conrad Black's newspaper, The National Post. And it was the Post which was at the forefront of critiquing - and exposing scandal in - the Canadian Liberal Party. Chretien - a mean, petty, miserable man - ended up hating the Post, and Black, for just those reasons.

So when the British government offered Black a seat in the House of Lords, Chretien decided to stick it to Black, and in unprecedented fashion - simply to wound Black personally - officially objected. The British government, respecting protocols, then withdrew the offer pending Black's adoption of British citizenship - something only possible if Black renounced his Canadian citizenship. So, that is what Black did. He was then made Lord Black of Crossharbour and given his seat in the upper chamber of the British parliament.

This would come back to haunt Black; having renounced his Canadian citizenship, he had no grounds once convicted to petition to serve his sentence in the much laxer Canadian prison system - after all, though he'd been born in Canada, he was no longer a Canadian. I presume he could petition to serve in the UK, but I haven't heard anything about this. Maybe the prisons there are worse than in America.

Black's case is now being sent to the appeals court; and that court will determine whether my friend, the shape-shifting reptilian from outer space, returns to the UK or Canada in freedom, or spends the next six years in a cell by himself. But regardless, he has I presume been largely ruined financially, as has his former company, Hollinger International - the shareholders of which the prosecutors ostensibly set out to "protect".

I really don't know if Black committed any crimes; but it is a very strange experience to have sat chatting with a man in his posh mansion, and then only months later, see him placed in prison. Perhaps it is that proximity which makes it easy for me to suspect that his conviction was unjust.


Ron said...

Let me be the first...

Nice piece. I, too, followed the trial closely, primarily through Steyn’s blog, but did read other sources, knowing Steyn was very much a supporter of Black’s.

Recently I had an email exchange with a friend who felt Black deserved at least the six years. I tried to explain that, while I agreed that Conrad was, by all reports having not met him personally, not a particularly nice guy - more of a tough, ruthless capitalist buccaneer. But he had done well by his shareholders and had juiced the newspaper industry in many countries and had saved several from bankruptcy. I expressed my regret that these sorts of robber barons were no longer tolerated and thought our world would be the lesser for it if we jailed this type.

Anyhow, my friend totally disagreed and thought Radler (RADLER!!) the hero for admitting his wrong doing. He even claimed Radler was courageous!! After a few back and forths, I gave up, realising that our views were opposed and equally set in stone.

I like your piece as it makes no judgement on the criminal aspect, but expresses some sympathy for the great who has fallen.

Tal said...

Thanks for the note, Ron.

I think the only scenario in which Daniel Radler could be considered a "hero" - and even this is a stretch - is if we suppose that his extremely poor performance as a prosecution witness was deliberate, so as to do his friend Black a solid. Other than that...what would there be?

You do raise a good point about robber barons, and I confess to ambivalence about such types. On the one hand, they are often ruthless and roguish and cavalier with respect to the law. On the other hand, they get stuff done that 99% of the population - and government - cannot or will not do; and in a properly run free market economy, those things can be good for a lot of people. It is not to wander off into the fringes of Randianism to say that "the great capitalists", when properly harnessed, can really pull spectacularly above their weight to most everyone's benefit.

Take Black and the National Post. With the implosion of the Progressive Conservative Party, Canada was virtually a one-party state for years (the Liberal Party had no viable national opposition, only regional parties like the Bloc Quebecois, the Canadian Alliance, plus the hapless NDP). As the examples of Mexico, South Africa, and Zimbabwe show, this is a dangerous situation for any supposedly democratic nation. The natural lust for dominion over others is so great within human beings, that each of us has a powerful incentive to lie, cheat, and steal so as to realize it - so what happens when one party achieves total mastery over all the levers of power? Democracy's institutions of debate and dissension become worthless where there are no viable debaters or dissenters, or no one can hear them anymore.

At a time when the Liberal Party of Canada had no viable national opposition - no one to expose their BS, no one to question them or hold them accountable in the court of public opinion - Black's newspaper The National Post did that (Mark Steyn was perfectly brilliant at it). In that sense, for a period of years, the National Post, with its unblinking scrutiny of Liberal rule (or misrule), helped keep Canadian democracy viable. I might even go so far as to say that it helped lay the groundwork for the resurrection of a legitimate national opposition party: the Canadian conservative party - the one that Prime Minister Stephen Harper now presides over.

In any case, we will see what happens with Black's appeal. He may be a rogue, but judging from the evidence presented at trial, he seems like a rogue, economically speaking, of the best type - perhaps practically, the best you could expect from one of these types.

By the way, my wife read my pieces on the party at Black's and kept saying, "Is this actually true?". So in case anyone else is wondering, yes, it's all true. I did hang at his mansion in Bridal Path, play, see the Hitler portrait, everything...!

JR said...

Good one. Part I also.

I'd still like to know why CB hung the Hitler portrait. Though the answer is probably not all that interesting - as in it's a collector's prize worth a gazillion bucks - and he had to sell it to pay his legal bills.

Anyway, maybe someone in the know, like Steyn perhaps, can enlighten us.

Caught your blog via 'Steynposts'.

Tal said...

Hi Jr.

What's "Steynposts"?

For what it's worth, Mark Steyn has got to be the most talented journalist out there. Why he isn't more recognized is hard for me to fathom.

Also, I doubt Mark would have asked Conrad about the Hitler portrait...It seemed like we all had "Elephant Syndrome" :P

JR said...

Tal, I should have put in this link to Steynposts.

Agree with you about Mark's talent.

dude said...

Having not followed the trial at all closely, I don’t have much to offer on the subject. However, I do find it particularly interesting that no one mentions that Black defines himself by his Roman Catholic faith; he switched teams (religiously speaking) in the 1980’s. He has gone as far as to say that his sense of guilt and shame would require him (because of his faith) to plead guilty to his accused crimes. If this is true, (and I doubt the guy would build a prayer chapel in his yard if it wasn’t) it leads me to believe that either he is either innocent or a he is a sociopath. The latter may explain the Hitler portrait.