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Conrad Black leaves his bail hearing in Chicago on Friday after his release from prison on a $2-million bond. (John Gress/REUTERS/John Gress/REUTERS)
Conrad Black leaves his bail hearing in Chicago on Friday after his release from prison on a $2-million bond. (John Gress/REUTERS/John Gress/REUTERS)

Margaret Wente

The revenge of Conrad Black Add to ...

Dear Lord Black,

Please forgive us. The envious, spiteful media mob was wrong, wrong, wrong about you all along. We hereby take it back. You are not a corporate kleptocrat. You are the victim of prosecutorial vigilantes and corporate-governance terrorists run amok, who railroaded an innocent man for their own self-aggrandizement. That dreadful law they used to throw you behind bars? Garbage! Every single judge on the Supreme Court said so. We've been insufferably smug and arrogant - labels we once applied to you. But now the schadenfreude is on the other foot.

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We regret all the mean, malicious things we ever wrote about you and your lovely wife, Barbara, who, we couldn't help but note, looked awfully sexy in those fishnet stockings she wore for your homecoming. She's more babealicious than ever! Nobody but your most ardent supporters at the National Post ever would have dreamed that, just 28 months after Judge Amy St. Eve sent you off to the slammer, you'd be meeting up with her again to discuss your bail conditions. If things keep going the way you predicted they would, we may soon be referring to you as a de-convicted felon.

You should have seen the newsrooms the other day when you got out on bail. Senior journalists were wandering around in a daze, smacking their heads in disbelief and calling up their libel lawyers for the first time in years. We thought we'd never have anything to fear from you again. But now you're back! And although we understand your financial circumstances are much reduced, we are also painfully aware of the satisfaction you obtain from getting even. Without a business empire to run, you'll have lots of time for that.

So this is just to say that we apologize unreservedly for any nasty thing we may have ever thought or said about you. We were misled.

Respectfully yours, etc.

P.S. A lot of us bet that Barbara would dump you, but she didn't. We're sorry about that, too.

… … …

Lord Black has many battles left to fight. The IRS is on his tail, as well as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He's got to figure out a way to get back home to Canada, the land he once derided as a "Third World dump run by raving socialists." He's all fired up to pursue his $800-million lawsuit against his corporate enemies - especially Richard Breeden, the former SEC chairman who got the ball and chain rolling back in 2004 when he issued a 500-page report accusing Hollinger International of being "corporate kleptocracy."

There are other scores to settle with the media, with whom he's been engaged in epic battle for a quarter of a century. A generation of journalists has felt the icy breath of libel chill whenever they say a word about him. So far, he has won every case. "It's a profit centre for me," he once said.

At the top of his hit list, I suspect, is Tom Bower, the British author of a flame-throwing book called Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge. Lord Black described it as "vindictive, high-handed, contemptuous, sadistic" and "pathologically mendacious," and promptly sued the author for $11.5-million. He was especially incensed at the depiction of Barbara as "grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill and a harridan." The lawsuit has been on hiatus since his conviction, but it's not necessarily dead. According to Eddie Greenspan, Lord Black's former lawyer, his client plans to use the proceeds of his libel suits to pay his other legal bills.

Journalists have learned the hard way that Lord Black always wins. He has sued most of the major Canadian media, including the CBC, the Toronto Star, The Canadian Press and The Globe and Mail. In 1983, he sued his biographer, Peter Newman, over a snarky story Mr. Newman wrote for a society magazine called Town and Country. In 2005, he sued him again over a vicious characterization of Barbara in Mr. Newman's memoir, Here Be Dragons. He once sued writer Ron Graham for a passing remark made in a book called God's Dominion: A Skeptic's Quest; his complaint was that "the author announces that having me for an acquaintance taught him that greed and ego add peculiarly to the sum total of human misery." He extracted an effusive apology, which appeared in an ad in The Globe.

I came to know Conrad Black during the years he wrote a monthly column for The Globe's Report on Business magazine, of which I was the editor. He was so copy-proud that I sometimes worried he'd sue us for changing his copy. His force of character was so overwhelming that once, when he demanded a raise, I actually gave it to him, even though he already made more than any other columnist we had. This relationship did not deter him from launching a $7-million lawsuit against the newspaper after it published an article he felt portrayed him as "a rapacious, right-wing Bay Street baron" who "milked" his businesses, "destroyed public companies" and oppressed minority shareholders "in a series of complex corporate shuffles designed primarily to fill his own coffers." (Those were his words, not The Globe's.) The upshot was a grovel so legendary that those connected with the incident have done their best to repress the memory of it.

"Anyone who has witnessed, as I have … the pitiful spectacle of reckless journalists trying to defend under oath negligent or malicious libels with spurious apologia or glazed prevarication, will not soon forget the illustration of how much better the working press often is at dishing out abuse than at answering for its own conduct," he wrote in 1988, before his prose improved.

In March of 2008, when Lord Black went to jail, the widespread sense among the media was that they'd been vindicated at last. Even The Wall Street Journal (which has now eaten its words) opined that he had reaped what he had sown. Most of the coverage took its cue from Judge Amy, who scolded: "I frankly cannot understand how someone of your stature, at the top of the media empire, could engage in the conduct you engaged in."

But even then not everyone agreed. A core of journalists and lawyers insisted he'd been railroaded from the start. "He may be an obnoxious, smug, arrogant braggart," one friend of mine said. "But that's not a crime."

In retrospect, perhaps Lord Black's greatest crime was underestimating the power of his adversaries. By the early 2000s, the most capitalist country in the world had created a justice system that gave extraordinary powers to ambitious prosecutors determined to make their names by hunting capitalists. Some people argue that he wouldn't have been convicted in any other country in the world, and they may well be right. He certainly never would have gone to jail in Canada, which can't even seem to incarcerate a convicted crook like Garth Drabinsky (still free more than a decade after events that gave rise to his prosecution for allegedly looting Livent as he launches his appeals).

No matter what you think of the man, you can't help but admire Lord Black's sense of purpose and his serene certainty. "We will bring this gigantic, malicious persecution down around the ears of its authors," he once wrote in a late-night e-mail to his nemesis, Tom Bower. Would you bet against this man? Not me.

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