Conrad Black quietly dropped a $3-million defamation lawsuit against a Canadian investigative reporter last month, putting an end to a fight which dragged on for almost four years. And while one defendant contended that the suit had contributed to a libel chill among Canadian journalists, Black said this week it was such a trivial matter it had all but fallen off his radar.
The case was unusual not just because Black – an author and former newspaper proprietor with a famously combative disposition – was suing a fellow journalist, but also because he targeted his own publisher in the suit.
Black launched the suit in June, 2012, one month after returning to Canada from the United States following a 42-month prison term he served for mail fraud and obstruction of justice stemming from the collapse of Hollinger International Inc., where he had been chairman, chief executive and controlling shareholder.
He objected to five brief passages in Bruce Livesey's Thieves of Bay Street: How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from Canadians, which had been published that March. The book was a bestselling investigation into corporate scandals, such as those at Nortel, Bre-X and Hollinger, arguing that Canadian regulators are far more lax than their American counterparts. (Livesey is an occasional contributor to The Globe and Mail's Report on Business magazine.)
One of the passages in question referred to "Canadian corporate criminals … such as Conrad Black." Black has not been convicted of a crime in Canada, and he famously gave up his Canadian citizenship in 2001 in order to accept a peerage in the British House of Lords.
The suit, filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, alleged the passages "are defamatory of [Black] and their publication and republication has brought the plaintiff into hatred, ridicule and contempt in Canada and the Plaintiff has suffered damage to his reputation." Black originally demanded damages of $1.25-million, later raising the amount to $3-million.
The suit named Livesey, his editors Ken Alexander and Craig Pyette and his publisher Anne Collins. In an unusual turn, it also named Random House of Canada Ltd., whose subsidiary, McClelland & Stewart, publishes Black.
Livesey argued that the suit was designed to quell criticisms of Black as he returned to Canada in the spring of 2012. "In my mind, it amounted to a SLAPP lawsuit," said Livesey, using the acronym for "strategic lawsuits against public participation," which aim to silence critics through the threat of significant court costs. "If you look at the passages he was complaining about, they were so, in my mind, trivial."
Livesey added that he was surprised to see meagre news coverage when the suit was launched. (The only major Canadian newspaper to cover the case was the National Post, which Black had founded and where he is still a columnist.) Instead, he said, the media treated Black adoringly on his return to Canada, quickly welcoming the former news baron back into literary and high society.
"I thought this was an issue of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and that Black should be condemned for the lawsuit," said Livesey, who contended that he had to hold his tongue after the suit was filed. "I was informed by Random House that if I wrote or spoke about the suit, this would provoke him. And we did not want to provoke him, and therefore I should remain quiet."
Collins noted, however, that "we believed so strongly in Bruce's work" that a paperback edition of the book was published in March, 2013, after the suit was filed. "That's not exactly remaining quiet."
She added that she did not believe the suit had a chilling effect. "I think that we continue to do really hard-hitting stuff."
"We're careful," she said. "But I think if something's important, you go for it. And you go for it smartly and you go for it with your facts in order. And that's what Bruce Livesey did, and that's what the resolution of the suit says to me – that the book was really solid and we defended it well and the upshot is we didn't have to retract, apologize or regroup in any way."
In a statement e-mailed this week to The Globe, Black said he dropped the suit because he "considered the book too insignificant, unsuccessful and buried by events to be worth the cost and trouble of pursuing the [suit]. We couldn't find that anyone read it or remembered it. It was certainly libellous, but had such a small sale, proving damages would be challenging."
Asked if he felt any conflict about suing his own publisher – in the years since filing the suit, M&S has published three of his books – Black said that he stayed with Penguin Random House because the company "satisfied me that they highly valued me as an author and my contracts with them reflect that; if I had had such a problem as you raise, I would have accepted the overtures of one of their competitors."
He added: "I don't give interviews in increments and there is no public right to know anything of this, so I will have nothing more to say about it. I had almost forgotten the subject."