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Out on bail, Conrad Black offers an oration on justice and journalism

Conrad Black

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Officially, the topic was the future of the newspaper industry. But when Conrad Black took the microphone before an audience of investors on Tuesday, he was in a more expansive frame of mind, blasting journalists, U.S. prosecutors and even WikiLeaks.

In a rare public appearance since his release from a Florida prison last year, Lord Black spoke for about thirty minutes in an ornate ballroom at New York's Plaza Hotel. Afterward, he answered questions on everything from his iPad use to his legal predicament.

Unrepentant, witty and erudite, the former media mogul drew laughter from the lunchtime audience when he noted it had been some time since he had addressed such a group of "spontaneous and voluntary" listeners.

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Thanks to a decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, Lord Black was released on bail and two of his four convictions for fraud and obstruction of justice were later overturned.

In June, he will be sentenced again for the two remaining convictions, unless the Supreme Court agrees to hear another appeal launched by Lord Black and his lawyers.

On Tuesday, he excoriated the U.S. legal system, describing the original charges against him as "nonsense" produced by prosecutors throwing "spaghetti at the wall." He added that "a moron can see today that there were no crimes committed by the defendants in our case."

While he is free on bail, Lord Black cannot leave the U.S. and currently lives in the tony enclave of Palm Beach, Fla. He is spending a week in New York, seeing friends and speaking at Tuesday's conference, which was organized by Grant's Interest Rate Observer, a respected financial newsletter.

After the speech, Lord Black, 66, gamely answered a reporter's questions, saying he missed both Canada and Britain, places he hasn't seen in four years.

"In fact, I miss the whole world outside this country," he said, as a small army of waiters cleared silverware from nearby tables. Of course, being restricted to the U.S. "is not as challenging or conducive to claustrophobia as my former confinement," he said.

Earlier, a questioner had asked whether Lord Black would consider staying in the U.S. "The fact that it has persecuted me half to death doesn't mean that it has ceased to be a great country," he replied, to chuckles in the crowd. "But I think I'd go back to the countries where I have been a citizen."

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Lord Black saved his most searing critiques for the media and for newspapers in particular, saying their complacency and mistakes had left them vulnerable to the threat posed by the Internet.

Journalism "is an occupation that suffers from a collective and in some cases individual narcissism," he said (lawyers and business people were guilty of the some of the same faults, he added, if to a lesser degree).

What journalists believe to be crowning achievements - for example, the crusading reporting on the Vietnam War and Watergate - are nothing of the sort, he said. Instead, the media's treatments of these controversies were "terrible self-inflicted wounds to [its]credibility."

The consequence of the scandals was that "every journalist, no matter how humble or improbable, for decades imagined themselves to be a little miniature Bob Woodward," Lord Black said. "You cannot imagine how tiresome it was."

Although he warned his audience against the "hypnotizing" allure posed by the newspaper industry, its prospects aren't all bleak in his view. "The trademark of a great newspaper will still be of tremendous value in an era where the overwhelming proliferation of choice confuses customers," he said.

He envisages that in their next incarnation, newspapers will be built around a number of core writers, updated twenty-four hours a day, customized to readers' preferences, delivered via e-mail, and printed out by subscribers at home. But first, he said, they will have to shed the "terrible albatrosses" of printing presses and delivery infrastructure.

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He later said that Canadian newspapers have fared better than their American counterparts. One reason he cited was an atmosphere of diversity and competition: While several major American cities have only one main newspaper, all of Canada's large cities have at least two, he said.

Lord Black, who said he was slightly hoarse from shouting during a lively dinner conversation the previous evening, managed to hit topics ranging from the amorous adventures of foreign correspondents in wartime London to the substance of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

"I thought that we would have to brace ourselves for revelations of horrible incompetence" by U.S. diplomats, he said. Instead, the materials have been "rather reassuring about the quality of your foreign service." As for Julian Assange, Lord Black said, his "masquerade as a champion of the world's right to know is pretty far-fetched."

Lord Black didn't pull any punches when it came to the American legal system, castigating the appeals court judges who were instructed to re-examine his case by the Supreme Court. He said they had managed to "revive two of the counts" against him by "a considerable feat of recasting evidence."

He said he expects to learn whether the Supreme Court will hear his new appeal in May, adding that while he is hopeful, the odds are that it will not. If it does not, he will learn in June from a federal court judge in Chicago whether he will return to prison, where he served two years of his original 6½-year sentence..

"I've been so astonished at how the process has unfolded I won't make any predictions," he said.

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