Conrad: The New New Black

Convicted fraudster Conrad Black, who once lorded over Australia’s Fairfax newspapers in another less-disgraced life, has been peddling around London, hyping his new book with the velocity of a Lance Armstrong EPO-ed to the eyeballs. And, like Lance, flogging The Big Lie that he’s innocent.

Armstrong would have us believe that he’s as saintly as Mandela, as virtuous as Aung San Suu Kyi, and that it’s everyone else with the credibility problem.

Black goes even further in his delusion. He seems to think he is Mandela, another gift to humanity oppressed by a “venal and corrupt” legal system — in his case America’s — that he rates as lowly as North Korea’s. The US justice system is a “fraudulent fascistic conveyor belt” that persecuted him “half to death”.

His is a curious way of looking at his past decade. American justice and the fleeced shareholders of Black’s now-defunct Hollinger group view it differently; that he looted a public company to fund a billionaire’s lifestyle that he, as a mere multi-millionaire, couldn’t afford.

Mandela was incarcerated mostly because he was black. Black seems to believe he was villainised because he was Conrad Black. Mandela chipped limestone in hard labour on South Africa’s Robben Island for the best part of 27 years. Black did his porridge, some three years and change, in a low-security Florida facility American cons regard as a Club Med for Crims, denied little but permission to leave it of his own accord.

On his British book tour, Black has been near as ubiquitous as the paedophile Jimmy Savile, another criminal who’s been all over the box recently. But since Savile is dead, the most perilous place in Britain seems no longer a BBC dressing room but the space between the old Canadian-born crook and a TV interviewer.

His was more offensive than charm. Sparring on the BBC’s Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, who deliciously introduced the Black segment as “Monsters Inc”. Black called Paxman “a priggish, gullible, British fool” while complimenting his own restraint in not belting Paxman on air. Black called Paxman an “asshole,” and was rude on Sky TV too, scrapping with “jackass” Adam Boulton, an interviewer “incapable of a civil syllable”. On BBC’s Hardtalk, he was civil, if impatient, but no less disabused of his criminality.

Black masochistically presented himself as well to the Beeb’s satirical flagship Have I Got News for You, where he proved stoic but ultimately roadkill for the show’s caustic regulars, the comic Paul Merton and Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop.

His schtick has been the same on each appearance. Everyone’s wrong except for Black and his fellow travellers; had his fraud case been heard anywhere but America he would never have been convicted, therefore he’s innocent globally. Like Armstrong, he’s guilty of nothing except choosing immoral business partners, unreliable directors and misjudging the zeal for corporate governance. He repeatedly claimed that he was never convicted for fraud, when the US Supreme Court — and his own book too — confirm he was. “I never cleaned the latrine,” he insists of his time in the lock-up. “It was a shower stall.” Which must be an important distinction for a convict.

Black affects an insouciance about his public image, that he doesn’t care what’s said about him. But writing in The Spectator (a magazine he once owned) after his media whirlwind, he assails London’s press as a “fetid and narcissistic infestation of self-obsessed, drearily-predictable, lazy, reckless self-exalted wits,” the “lowest mutation of human life” he’s ever encountered — except, of course, American prosecutors.

Not one adjective for the pleonastic Conrad when 10 are far better.

As for the politicians he once lavished in his books and on his boards, they now disappoint him. His request for a pardon from George W. Bush, which Black made via Bush’s father, was refused. Or as Black puts it “he didn’t reject it, he just didn’t act on it”. Now he’s trying to regain entry to the very same US that banned him for 30 years — when he’ll be 98 — the same US he ceaselessly slags, the same place he chose to headquarter his now-defunct empire, which was largely brought undone by an independent investigator (a former chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, no less) his own board had appointed.

He’s also trying to restore his Canadian citizenship, the birthland which he once derided as a “Third World dump run by raving socialists”. He renounced his Canadian passport in 2001 to become Lord Black of Crossharbour, a peerage honour many Britons would now like withdrawn from Inmate 18330-424, as the US Federal Bureau of Prisons catalogues him.

Black says he’s doing the media rounds only to sell his new book, A Matter of Principle. Though his fortune has been pillaged by fleecing lawyers, he’s still a very wealthy man — worth USD80 million by one measure which he does not deny.

So if he doesn’t need the money, it’s presumably his ego and a craving for celebrity he’s trying to salve, or perhaps it’s to announce to his former social circle that he and wife Barbara Amiel are back, and that they still matter.

For a time, they were a hot ticket on the London circuit, but even at the peak of his powers — and excess — in the early 2000s, Black was never as publicly recognisable or notorious as British press czars such as Murdoch the “Dirty Digger,” porn baron Richard Desmond or that other fraudster, Robert “The Bouncing Czech” Maxwell. To the wider public, Black’s appearances in their living rooms this past week would likely be the first time they’ve ever heard of him.

A Matter of Principle is published by Encounter Books, which counts among its stable of authors the former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, British right-wing firebrand Melanie Phillips and Australian Keith Windschuttle, among other polemicists.

Black’s book is relentlessly self-absorbed, a riposte aimed at wresting the public record of his career back from Tom Bowers’ excoriating 2006 biography, Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, which Black describes as “the most artlessly libelous book since The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Which is some claim when you consider that Protocols is the book many historians argue influenced Hitler to carry out the Holocaust.

A love letter to himself, Black’s book is at its most disquieting in describing prison life at Federal Correctional Institution Coleman Low in Florida, where — and parents, look away now — he even found child molesters, the lowest of the low of prison pond scum, agreeable company.

These ‘chomos’ were “quite pleasant and sometimes rather intelligent,” and quite possibly victims, like him, of America’s “corrupt prosecutocracy,” Black writes, questioning whether his chomo chums should’ve been behind bars at all.

“Some had huge collections of lewd photographs,” he writes. “I am not convinced that these are facts that justify imprisonment.” As for those who physically abused defenceless people, Black says they are “disgusting” but he also sympathises with them for the “maladjustment” that drove them to such “pitiful” acts.

A Matter of Principle is a register of floridly expressed fibs and score-settling, but no less entertaining for it. Its most diverting — and perhaps its most truthful — passages come at the end, when he discusses his one-time rival in British, Australian and North American print, Rupert Murdoch.

“The Real Rupert Murdoch” is Black’s dramatic coda. And he reserves his most intense vengeance for last.

The venom positively drips from the text. As widely reported this week, he describes Rupert as a “psychopath”, but this seems almost charitable compared with what follows. It’s almost as if Black blames the News Corp boss and his empire for his travails, because it’s clear in the preceding 500 pages — and perish the thought — the last person Conrad Black blames for those is himself.

First, there’s a generous preamble, praising Murdoch for corporate achievements that are “Napoleonic in boldness of concept and skill of execution”. Rupert, Black notes approvingly, cracked the British print unions, broke the American TV cartels, and pioneered satellite TV. With typical bombast, Black claims, “and no one has been more vocal or consistent than I in saluting [these achievements].”

But this is only the starter before Black’s main course, the punctuating breath presaging an inevitable ‘but.’

Then Conrad delivers the dish on his old friend, and then some. Rupert — whom Black says he supported when Murdoch flirted with bankruptcy in the early 1990s — has betrayed him in an “unspeakable assault … despite having assured me in writing that he would try to prevent excesses”.

In a passage penned the same week last year that Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal listed Black in a rogue’s gallery as one of five of history’s most monstrous of corporate criminals, Black says Murdoch “personally intervened” to “Madoffize” him, as “his vast media organisation swung into vitriolic defamatory mode”.

In what might be regarded as a pot-kettle moment for Black, he relishes the Murdoch empire’s recent descent into disgrace from its phone-hacking excesses, when “his companies’ skullduggery finally oozed out, sluggish and filthy”. Murdoch’s News has been “stripped naked as the lawless hypocritical organisation it has long been … engaging in wholesale industrial espionage.”

<p>Brian Kersey/Getty Images</p>

Black describes Murdoch’s “bumbling” appearance before British parliamentarians last year — “like a centenarian semi-cadaver, mumbling about humility. Behind his nondescript personality lurks a repressed destructive malice … [the proprietor of a criminal organisation”. Murdoch, writes Black, is “the great defamer … a tottering, cowardly supplicant and a prime candidate for criminal prosecution on at least two continents.

“In the extreme winter of his days, Rupert Murdoch’s failing hands have dropped the mask; he is a malignant force and it would be a good thing for the world to be done with him.”

Responding by Twitter to Black’s harangue, Murdoch said last week that one should never be surprised by Conrad’s language, adding that “despite [his] faults, [Black was] very gutsy to fight”.

Their exchange reveals much of both men.

Black’s bile lays blame for his failures on everyone but himself. But what about Rupert? However harsh the insults Black heaps upon him here, Murdoch seems gracious about a fallen former adversary.

Instead, Murdoch reserves scorn for those who continue to meaningfully confront him — such as the “celebrity scumbags” of the Hacked Off campaign that formed in the wake of the phone-hacking revelations, and which continues to expose criminality at News and elsewhere.

Conrad Black no longer poses any threat to Murdoch so it’s easy and even cheap to be gracious about a man reduced to near a figure of pity and ridicule.

But for someone so clearly adoring of his own syntax, words don’t seem to be that important to Black. After mercilessly traducing Murdoch in his book, all it took was a “friendly tweet” from Rupert for Black to offer, via a column in London’s Mail on Sunday, to “bury the hatchet.” One suspects that if he cared, Murdoch would take up Black’s proposal — and embed said blade between Conrad’s shoulders.

THIS correspondent had a bit to do with the then London-based Black, before and briefly after he bought into Fairfax. I was then in Fairfax’s London bureau for The Sydney Morning Herald and spoke often with him as his effort to buy Fairfax twisted between Canberra and his Tourang syndicate’s big end of town.

Black then owned the right-leaning London Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. When he began looming over Fairfax, horrified SMH lifers exhorted me to write a hatchet job, insisting that he was a recidivist interferer of Murdochian proportion in his papers’ newsrooms.

Problem for that argument was there was little evidence that Black actually did interfere, at his London papers anyway. The toffy Telegraphs were — and remain — the handbook of England’s affluent conservative shires. They embodied his world view long before he bought them in 1986, that the planet was best stewarded by a patrician establishment club, the more white, male and Anglophone the better (though gender exception was enthusiastically made for Margaret Thatcher), populated by trans-Atlantic types like, well, Conrad Black, a scion of one of Canada’s wealthiest business dynasties, destined to be ennobled by his peers.

Black didn’t need to interfere too much in Telegraph editorial. More often than not he was in furious agreement with his clubbable editors Max Hastings, Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson — the latter two had also been editors of The Spectator. This is different to Murdoch, who directs his empire’s groupthink as might a mafia don, commanding a legion of capos directing ciphers delivering the boss’ directives.

The occasional times Black wasn’t in accord with the Telegraphs, he would indulge himself onto their pages with a signed letter or commentary, most notoriously on New Year’s Eve, 1992 when a vast tract of the Daily Telegraph’s fashion pages was set aside for Black’s “personal offensive against the efforts of the long-skirt brigade to kill off the short skirt”.

This bizarre piece came just a few months after Black had married, after a brief affair, the Canadian journalist Barbara Amiel, who Vanity Fair once described as a “sleek, self-absorbed sex kitten”, a woman notorious among her Toronto Sun colleagues for once, when editor, coming to work in a loose trenchcoat revealing a black bustier, garter belt and stockings.

My brief encounter with Amiel was comical. Researching the biography piece in late 1991 as Black circled Fairfax, I rang around a few colleagues representing Canadian media in London to exchange gossip about him. One hack suggested I call Amiel, then a Sunday Times columnist, because “she knows more about him than any of us”.

I did, but rather than swap titbits, she swiftly blew me off, telling me it would be “inappropriate” to discuss Black. I was puzzled and a little miffed too, particularly when everyone else had been faultlessly Canadian; polite, easygoing, co-operative. Weeks later, long after I’d filed my piece, the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary had an item revealing Conrad Black’s new squeeze — Barbara Amiel, a femme fatale who would later admit to Vogue that her “extravagance knew no bounds,” a profligacy Conrad happily enabled for his “magnificent” spouse — his second, her fifth.

If Black knew of my blithe bumbling around his then mistress, he didn’t show it, engaging whenever necessary to transmit his take on whatever twist and turn his play for Fairfax was taking in Sydney and Canberra. He secured control in mid-1992 but maintained a contact of sorts afterwards, sporadically calling but never to direct, more to gossip and know more of Australia, a land about which he claimed he knew little.

Always faultlessly courteous, he was perhaps the most revealing the last time we spoke. In mid-January 1993, I got into the bureau early one day to meet a deadline. The phone rang around dawn and the caller asked for me. It was Conrad Black, a friendlier-than-normal Conrad Black.

“Hello, mate,” he said, in that forced mimicry of the Australian vernacular foreigners deploy when seeking to ingratiate. “I was hoping you might have a copy of the Camilla story from Australia?” he asked. This was Camillagate, the transcript of an intimate telephone conversation illegally recorded three years earlier between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, which had been splashed in Australia overnight on the cover on Murdoch’s New Idea magazine.

It was news to me, but it was customary in those pre-internet days for the Fairfax bureaux to be faxed anything from Australia that needed follow up abroad. I went to the communications room, and there spilling from the fax was New Idea’s Camillagate.

I faxed it to Black, and he called back delighted that he’d got it probably before anyone in London. He explained that he was hosting a dinner that evening. The transcripts confirmed the open secret that Camilla and Charles, who was then still married to Diana, were an item. Then unpublishable in London during the ‘War of the Waleses,’ this would be the piece de resistance to produce at table, the hottest scandal of the time.

For all his verbosity and cerebral bluster, this man so profoundly enamoured of his own intellect — Paul Keating once described the choice between Kerry Packer and Black as that between a “900-pound gorilla and a fucking thesaurus” — was as down and dirty and gossipy as the next person.

For Black, as with other media moguls past and present, media proprietorship is an entry ticket to the Things That Matter. Flapping the Camillagate transcripts at his titillated dinner guests would remind them he was a global power player with a ringside seat on everything from trans-Atlantic machinations through Middle East intrigues (he also owned – and changed — the influential Jerusalem Post) to knowing before most in his elite social and business circle that the heir to the British throne imagined himself as a tampon.

My colleagues’ fears that Black would interfere would prove largely unfounded, and compared with the commercial turmoil Fairfax now endures, his was something of a golden era there. A vengeful Packer was mostly kept at arm’s length, technology was yet to dry up Fairfax’s classified advertising ‘rivers of gold’ and its newspapers did relatively well. Indeed, Black’s four years at Fairfax were among his more lucrative — and less larcenous — corporate adventures. He exited in 1996, frustrated by Canberra’s media regulations, which barred him from owning more, but with a $300 million profit on the investment.

Australia left him with mixed feelings. In his book, he writes that though he had a “happy commercial and personal experience” he found Australians “paranoid” about foreign investment and a place that encouraged “innovatively salacious foul-mouthed language”.

Paul Keating, the prime minister of the era, and with whom he tangled over media ownership law, was “an extremely entertaining and in some ways brilliant man, a likeable scoundrel” albeit one deficient of “Solomonic” judgement.

Dishonourable Australian political leaders on both sides had “flimflammed” him, and he blames them in part for his failure to become one of the world’s biggest media companies (when there are plenty who’ll testify — and did — that Black’s regard of his shareholders’ money as his own was a more compelling impediment to corporate expansion). He scowls at the Murdoch empire’s “constant Australian back-biting and chippiness”, which he says Rupert Murdoch “likes and promotes”.

About the only Australians to have Black’s unqualified approval are the “delightful” Barry Humphries and Bob Carr, whom he neo-colonially describes as the former “prime minister of New South Wales”. Carr, Black writes, is a “very accomplished man” and claims him as his best Australian friend since the 1999 death of the novelist Morris West.

It seems the love-in between Black and Carr is mutual. Carr wrote in August 2010 — prematurely as things turned out — of his pleasure to hear from his “favorite press proprietor”, noting that he’d won his appeal and had been released from prison in the US. A few months later, the US Supreme Court directed Black to prison to finish his sentence.

So where to next for the Black caravan? Australia? His good friend Bob Carr is, of course, now Australia’s foreign minister. In various columns, Black has advanced Carr as just the man to restore the international lustre – if it were ever thus — of the Commonwealth, to replace Germany-dominated Europe and the “erratic” US.

Any Australian plans for Black would raise questions of whether Canberra would allow entry to this convicted criminal. And Bob Carr is the ultimate arbiter for a visa should his mate Conrad the crook beg Australia’s pardon to flog a few of his books down under and, if his British sortie is any guide, spread some lies and bile too.