- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

The news from the Conrad Black trial in Chicago is a surprise. The vulpine British press is returning home. Jurors have been observed deep in sleep. The circus recently predicted by the New York Times has turned into a thunderous bore.

Conrad Black is the Canadian “press baron” who over three decades created one of the great newspaper conglomerates in the world. At its height, at the beginning of this century, it was the second- or third-largest chain of English-speaking newspapers in the world. Including the Telegraph papers of London, the Jerusalem Post and Canada’s National Post (founded in 1998 by Mr. Black). Mr. Black could lay claim to being the owner of the highest-quality string of newspapers in the world. Then disaster struck, or was it simply jealousy?

At the New York investment firm of Tweedy Browne, holder of 13 million shares of Mr. Black’s publicly held company, Hollinger, late 2001 a restive spirit arose concerned about “management fees” paid by Hollinger to a private company, Ravelston, which was controlled by Mr. Black. Mr. Black and his associates got the money. Tweedy Browne’s “restive spirit” agitated for an investigation, and the Hollinger board of directors tapped Richard Breeden, once chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to oversee it. Mr. Breeden had become a corporate reformer and the report he eventually deposited has been described by Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal as “an inflammatory report.” It accused Mr. Black and his lieutenants or “corporate kleptocracy.”

That brought in the feds. Mr. Black and several associates were indicted on such charges as racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering and mail fraud. Facing some 100 years in prison, Mr. Black chose to fight. A partner of his, David Radler, copped a plea. Mr. Black was forced out of Hollinger and Hollinger’s stock plummeted. Possibly the “restive spirit” at Tweedy Browne has subsided.

Since Mr. Black has been out, Hollinger’s shareholders have lost a bundle, though lawyers all around have rung up more than $60 million in fees. There had to be a better way to address this question of “management fees.”

Mr. Black did not begin his career as a journalist. He was a businessman. Yet the company he built, the newspapers he published, and the journalists he encouraged mark him off as one of the finest newspapermen of modern times.

He is a stupendously civilized man, widely learned and the author of two splendid biographies, one of Franklin Roosevelt, the other (to be published this spring) of Richard Nixon. When he was on top at Hollinger, journalism in the English-speaking world was vastly more interesting than it is today.

I have known Mr. Black for two decades and admired his works. I also have had run-ins with him. A few years back, I refused a deal he offered. Boy, was he mad. I was too. But that is water under the bridge. He is a major force for good in the publishing world. All who favor a free and intelligent press should hope he will be back.

From Chicago it sounds as though he might be back. One of Canada’s most distinguished journalists writes from the courtroom after observing two weeks of the trial, “Conrad Black will be found not guilty.” Peter Worthington is a bit irked, expressing his view in the Toronto Sun that American prosecutors have been dismissive of Canada, which they have “depicted as Albania.”

But it is the prosecutors’ case that provokes Mr. Worthington’s judgment that Mr. Black will be acquitted. As he sees it, the charges against Mr. Black and his co-defendants “are not only unwarranted but wrong.” After two weeks, “there has been no evidence produced that clearly indicates a crime committed.” Better yet, the courtroom proceedings have become “booooring.”

So the hacks in the press are growing tired of the trial. The drama of bringing a grand figure down is not developing. Mr. Black has been a gentleman through the entire proceedings, though he faces months more. His stance has been valiant. He did not cop a plea. He has trusted in the justice of an American court. He remains a friend of America. If Mr. Worthington is right, Mr. Black may yet mount one of the great comebacks in modern journalistic history.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, a contributing editor to the New York Sun and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His latest book, “The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President’s Life After the White House,” has just been published by Thomas Nelson.

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