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'Were you the slut?"

"No, no," Stefani Langenegger said. "I was the vermin."

"Well, who's the slut then?"

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That was an actual exchange yesterday from the Conrad Black trial, where opening statements were postponed and nothing much else happened. Alas, it will never be found in any official transcript of the case.

Ms. Langenegger is a CBC radio reporter. Those grilling her, just before court resumed, were other reporters. At issue were the exact remarks allegedly made by Barbara Amiel in a crowded elevator earlier that morning.

Ms. Langenegger was perfectly fair in her recital of events. She even provided what we in the business call context.

One day last week at the courthouse, she said, the Blacks were followed onto an elevator by a CBC radio producer who was talking into her phone, briefing those waiting on ground level as to which block of elevators the couple was on and the progress of the elevator, presumably so the lurking scrum could better swarm and jostle the pair as they emerged.

This time, the couple got onto an elevator already occupied by Ms. Langenegger and a colleague. The same CBC producer then appeared at the doors, and Lord Black inquired, quite pleasantly, "Are you going to breathlessly report on our movements again?"

"Are you leaving the building?" the producer asked.

"No," said Lord Black.

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"Then I'll leave you be," the producer said. (You see? Reporters can too be human.) But, as the doors were closing, from the back of the elevator, Lady Black apparently cried, "You slut! You're all vermin! I used to be a journalist. I'm sick of it."

Now, this discussion among the curs of the press unfolded about 12:30 p.m.

Earlier, without realizing it, I'd stumbled across Lady Black making a sorry reference to the incident.

Years ago, when I worked at the Toronto Sun, Barbara Amiel, as she then was, was the editor, and a fine editor too. She always addressed me by my last name, which I liked. I liked working for her, too. So when I was directed by court officials yesterday to sit in the row right behind her, I said hello and asked how she was.

"Oh, I lost my cool today," she said in her soft voice, obviously chagrined. "That's what happens when you're not sleeping." I murmured something about losing my cool every day, noticing that as we chatted, the reporters around us were leaning forward to catch every word. Not wanting our every word to be overheard, I didn't ask Lady Black what she meant.

Later, during the slut discussion, I realized that was what she'd been talking about. One of my sharper-eared colleagues must have caught what she said to me, because the reporters were also talking about how she'd apparently expressed regret.

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There followed a parsing of each word and what it may have meant: "Used to be" a journalist, someone noted; hmm, didn't Lady Black, who long has been a formidable columnist in her own right, consider herself one any more?

Even as I participated in this discussion (what I said, ruefully, was that it has been a long time since anyone called me a slut), it struck me as insane, though as a measure of what particular sort of insanity isn't at all clear.

While the brouhaha was surely in part a function of there being no other news this day out of the case -- Judge Amy St. Eve postponed the lawyers' openings until today and then issued, machine-gun-style, dozens of small arcane rulings -- it is also the fact that there are entire newspapers, magazines and websites now devoted to nothing but this sort of stuff.

Britney Spears's underwear or lack of it, and hair or lack of it; the various men claiming to have slept with the late Anna Nicole Smith and therefore possible contenders as the father to her possibly very rich baby daughter; Lady Black lashing out: It's all grist for the modern mill.

In the background, of course, is the notion that it would be rich (read: ironic) for someone like Lady Black, who has been around the block a few times, as most of us over 50 have been, to call another woman a slut.

And in the background to all of it is that women who are overtly sexual or too sexy will pay a price.

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It's unnecessary to say that I know none of this first-hand, never having been a bombshell, but my sexiest woman friend, every bit as comely as Lady Black, I remember, was furious when, Anna Nicole Smith not even yet cold, the men were lining up to claim paternity of her daughter. My friend wasn't angry so much that the men were doing it, but that they were not being salaciously and cruelly mocked as promiscuous gold-diggers the way Ms. Smith had been when she married the aged billionaire J. Howard Marshall.

It does Lady Black a disservice even to lump her in with a singer and a model-celebrity. She is an accomplished writer and a smart cookie and was long before she married Lord Black. All that the objects of media attention have in common is the profound discomfort so many people feel in the presence of a woman deemed to be too sexual.

Frankly, even by the most generous and/or meanest reckoning, depending on your point of view -- this distinction probably would belong to Tom Bowers, the British author of Conrad & Lady Black, Dancing on the Edge, which devotes a good deal of time to her affairs and her sexuality -- Lady Black hardly seems to have had a huge number of lovers. She also had the endearing habit of tending to wed them. God knows, I've worked with newspaper colleagues who were much less selective and considerably busier sexually when they were married than Lady Black ever was as a gorgeous and powerful single woman.

As Marilyn Monroe once said, "It stirs up envy, fame does." So does sexy, if it's in a woman. The old virgin/whore divide is always at work, enough that when Lady Black herself reached for an epithet, "slut" was the one she found.

The very funny columnist Mark Steyn, who like me used to work for Lord Black (Canada is a small big country, and a number of us covering this trial either worked for him or aspired to work for him) and who here is toiling for Maclean's magazine, watched the press discussion with much amusement yesterday. He suggested the court staff should heretofore divide the press seats into "Sluts" and "Vermin," with signs to match. Some days, and yesterday was one, it feels too bloody fitting.

cblatchford@globeandmail.ca

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