Considering Conrad (July 19, 2007)

On almost

feeling sorry for Conrad

I did try — for almost a second — to resist the temptation to gleefully pile on.

But how to follow all those happy headline writers? “CON-rad Black…” “Lord Greed…” “Lord Fraud…” Or one-up all those many other former ink stained wretches — all once also in the employ of the now “disgraced,” now “former” media baron —who wanted their space to gloat over Black’s Friday 13th comeuppance on fraud and obstruction of justice charges?

“Everyone who worked under the trying regime of Conrad Black is breathing a great sigh of relief,” sighed an editorialist at his former American flagship, the Chicago Sun-Times. Over in London, the folks at the Daily Telegraph, once the jewel in Lord Black’s crown, wanted it known publicly that, “since 2004, [Conrad Black] has had no connection with the paper.”

And so it has gone. The wonderfully witty Canadian journalist Linda McQuaig, whom Black once famously wished “horsewhipped” for her left-wing views, wrote in Britain’s Guardian of “the simple pleasure of watching one of the world’s most pompous individuals publicly humiliated, perhaps forced to spend his remaining days in the Big House (the one full of guys in orange jumpsuits, not ermine robes and funny hats).”

Over at The Beaver, Canada’s history magazine, reports have leaked out that Conrad is very much in the running — along with fellow business hall of shamers Bernie Ebbers of World-Com infame and David Walsh of Bre-X mischief — for the dubious title of “Worst Canadian,” in spite of the fact he is no longer one of us (if, of course, he ever was).

There has been barely a pause for bated breath in the week between last week’s conviction and this afternoon’s bail hearing in Chicago which, as the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Wells so cheerfully opined, “will serve only to postpone the inevitable, just outcome… Conrad Black is headed to jail.”

It is almost enough to make one feel sorry for the embattled Black.

Almost.

The truth is that Black’s sycophants — and they are many and well-placed in Canada’s national media — have been doggedly doing their doggie best to right the wrongs done their hero last week.

They still claim he did nothing wrong (ignoring the reality he personally pick-pocketed $2.6 million of shareholders’ money in a tax dodge by agreeing not to compete with himself in a deal with himself); that he was the unlucky victim of an envious blue-collar jury and/or over-zealous prosecutors; that he was acquitted on all the major charges against him (failing to note that the “lesser” crime of obstruction of justice carries a 20-year penalty); and that — perhaps most importantly — this unjust conviction should do nothing to tarnish his reputation as one of the world’s great entrepreneurs.

The reality is that Conrad’s conviction is simply the logical end to a career that has careened ever upward — or downward, depending on your perspective — from one dodgy dodge to the next questionable deal. It is worth remembering the born-with-a-silver-spoon Black got his entrepreneurial start selling purloined exam papers to fellow students at Upper Canada College; that he later sweet-talked two widows out of control of one of Canada’s most important holding companies and then managed to mismanage most of its holdings out of existence; that the courts forced him to return $62 million he’d wrongly taken from the workers’ pension fund at Dominion Stores; and that he had to sign a consent decree with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1982 just to avoid prosecution on a charge of filing “misleading public statements” in connection with an American takeover deal.

There are those who will insist that, whatever else bad he may have done, Conrad Black, the media mogul, was good for journalism.

It is true Black’s 1998 launch of his vanity-press vehicle, National Post —the only business Black has ever actually created but, ironically, a flawed business idea from day one — did jack up salaries at the top of the journalistic pyramid. But that was temporary, and largely achieved at the expense of the bottom-line health of most of the rest of Black’s boonies-holdings, including this one.

No, the best that can be said of Conrad now is that the author of a number of justifiably best-selling biographies is still an entertaining writer, and that, thanks to events in Chicago, he will now have much to write about, and plenty of time to do it. As Joey Smallwood once said, stealing a line from Churchill: “History will be kind to me. I will write it myself.”

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.

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