Conrad Black: not just another number

An exclusive excerpt from ’A Matter of Principle’
Not just another number
Phil Snel

That a man whose baronic title remains Lord Black of Crossharbour should have written a book so redolent of his abhorrence of hierarchy, and of authority in general, must tell us something about our enduring fascination with Conrad Black, who returned to prison this week after a 13-month reprieve. During that period of freedom he saw an appeal of his 2007 fraud conviction fail and, because he could do himself no further harm, arranged publication of A Matter of Principle, as subversive a treatise on American justice as has likely ever been written by someone who also boasts of having received correspondence “from every U.S. president from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush, the last four while in office.”

In total, the story represents “the ludicrous demise of my great love affair with America.” It’s as much a tale of lost fortune, influence and reputation, one that should have been foreseen: “My pride and haughty spirit were of the nature that often leads to a fall,” he allows. “My prison number, 18330-424, is stamped on my clothes and mandatory on all correspondence. I am 65 years old. I entered these walls a baron of the United Kingdom.”

He and his wife, Barbara Amiel, first arrive at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida and are ignored. “Barbara, thinking I had been struck dumb, said, ‘My husband, Conrad Black, is here to self-surrender.’ ” Soon, a “beefy correctional officer, unarmed but heavy-laden with gadgetry, surged into the room and pointed at me with well-rehearsed purposefulness.” He and Amiel prepare to separate: “A kiss, a searching look, a very few words, and I walked forward, not turning back to wave lest I be reproved in front of her and add to the distress of us both. She departed.” Long before, Amiel had quoted from the Book of Ruth—“Whither thou goest, I will go.” The night before, “We had held each other during the night.” Within a few paragraphs Black is handcuffed and prison officials are probing “the approaches to my rectum.”

In jail, where he witnesses men sleep en masse under red overhead lighting in “an unearthly Dante purgatorial scene,” he appears to find the loss of his own freedom less objectionable than the “monolithic, dehumanizing arrogance” of his surroundings and the regulations he must face—those “demeaningly precise rules governing almost everything.” The prison scenes are packed with preening martinets; at times he can persuade the reader to seethe along with him. He begins a prison diary, written “in French, with many abbreviations, words spelled backward, and argot,” the better to entertain “a slight Chateau d’If fantasy”—a reference to the Dumas adventure The Count of Monte Cristo.


Less a prison memoir than an exhaustive litany of persecutions—at turns fun, cutting, bitchy, boring and surprisingly tender—A Matter of Principle everywhere offers more proof of Black’s discomfort with any power not wielded by Black himself. He refers to the U.S. criminal justice system as a “prosecutocracy,” engages in a lengthy comparison of America’s plea bargain system with the self-condemnations of Stalinist Russia, and calls the country’s legal system in general “the ugliest and nastiest American face of all.” His impatience extends to the desires of the reader: only 30 pages of the book or so are dedicated to his time at Coleman, and most of these begin on page 442.

Still, Black’s talent for self-dramatization lends the story verve—for example when his treatment at the hands of federal prosecutors becomes a measure of his Catholic faith: “I had long believed the Jesuit formulation that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” he says. Of his recently dashed chance at proving his detractors wrong and, at his final hearing in June, of remaining free, he describes Judge Amy St. Eve, “robotically pretend[ing] that there were incontestable convictions in the case,” and adds: “I don’t think she believed any of it at the weary end of the long case . . . but was committed to the script, and some of counsel thought she might still imagine I was guilty of something.” No wonder he waited to publish.

Indeed, his book casts Black as one of Canada’s great anti-heroes, not just in jail but in the story of his ascendancy and fall too. With his old business partner and ultimate witness for the prosecution David Radler, he is a Duddy Kravitz figure:“We had sat together in Montreal delicatessens the way young men and small businessmen do, dreaming and planning what we could next achieve with our company.” On Christmas Day, 2005, after federal prosecutors have indicted him on eight counts of fraud, he reads the Book of Job and becomes its protagonist: “I discovered that while Job had endured more severe oppression than I had he had been much less patient.” During his 2007 Chicago trial he rereads Kafka’s The Trial and decides that “if history repeats itself as farce, fiction returns as journalism.”

Occasionally his infatuation with history leads to some unfortunate outcomes, as when he says of Henry Kissinger, a Hollinger director he feels hung him out to dry: “This extraordinarily intelligent refugee of Nazi Germany seemed not to understand that the contemporary version of ‘I was only following orders’ is ‘My lawyer advised me not to.’ ” (Black is nowhere more vulnerable than in the book’s index, where, under the heading “Kissinger, Henry,” the first subject reads “abandons CB.”)

Yet his love affair with Amiel, a Maclean’s columnist, elevates the narrative, supplying it with its most moving scenes. In January 2004, at the beginning of his difficulties, he returns to his Toronto home and finds Amiel missing. Hours later, as the police are attempting to deploy a canine unit, she returns, almost frostbitten. “She appeared to have spent a number of hours outside in the snow,” he writes. She had vanished on foot to a Don Mills shopping centre and bought Black two combs, “items that I did not need but have used fetishistically ever since.”

Even as his legal situation worsened, Black, seeking a break from “this mad and squalid ethical wasteland,” “swept Barbara up like D’artagnan” and took her on holiday to Monte Carlo (another echo of Dumas he sees in his own life). In New York he watches her emerge from a flight from London “flamboyant, indomitable, and glamorous . . . I was inexpressibly pleased to see her; we hate being apart.” As the financial strains of paying his legal fees mount, forcing the couple to hawk their various homes—and Amiel to try hawking her jewellery—she “unflinchingly liquidated our British life. The house was evacuated room by room as Barbara retreated to our bedroom, where she was accompanied by a large cardboard picture of me that she had used years before when I was unable to attend one of our dinner parties.” Four months later, she cleaned out their New York flat also.

This week, Black did not return to Coleman. (As he explains, two “correctional managers” who supplied affidavits to prosecutors before his June re-sentencing hearing fear he could be a “physical threat.”) That is likely a good thing, as he permits himself more than a few jabs at his jailers. Prison is a “Ruritanian dictatorship,” and Coleman a “bumbling gulag.” Just hours after arriving, summoned to the lieutenant’s office, “I was urged, in an almost avuncular manner, to ‘antiquate’ to the community. I resisted the temptation to lure the lieutenant further into the tenebrous thickets of polysyllabalism, divined that he was urging me to ‘acclimate,’ and promised to do my best.” What follows is a sort of Jeeves and Wooster comedy in which the inmates exhibit themselves as far more clever than their jailers. “The residential units are beehives of ingenuity: distillers, opticians, carpenters, metal-workers, reconstructors of mattresses, modifiers of prison pillows.” On his second day, authorities uncover a clandestine still in one of the bathrooms; everything is available, bought and sold with postage stamps, the currency of the place. Meanwhile, prison officials too often engage in “adolescent, verbally challenged emulations of a John Wayne figure,” or are themselves corrupt.

Nowhere in the book does Black admit guilt and, due to his own exposure to the criminal justice system, he is only too ready to believe in the innocence of others. A fifth of his fellow inmates, he says, “discounting a deal of fabulism, are, like myself, not guilty of anything.” (He is a fan of such fabulism: “There were many original characters, some by virtue of the elaborate impostures they made for themselves, aggregating grand theft auto up to Professor Moriarty-like criminal fiendishness in the telling.” “I steal airplanes,” one inmate tells him.)

He busies himself writing for publications and tutoring inmates in preparation for high school equivalency exams. Humbling, perhaps, but of himself he will only own up to failures in optics: he admits to “an imperfect sense of public relations” that has saddled him with “a caricature public image that has lurched about like a clumsy monster for decades.” A little later, he writes, “I don’t doubt I could have played my cards more diplomatically (and will when I return).”


The fact that David Radler’s counsel had withdrawn from the joint-defence group indicated that Anton Valukas, his lawyer, thought he could really do something with Radler in Chicago as Queen for a Day—the colloquial term for the procedure of exploring what deal a target might make with the prosecutors. I was disgusted and filled with revulsion that I had spent as long as I had in business with Radler . . . I should have been more suspicious of his endless grabbing for money and his disparagement of public companies. Once I had seen this, my plan was to let the private newspaper companies he had spun out of Hollinger International ripen and then trade some of my shareholdings in them for Radler’s Ravelston shares. I didn’t have the means to buy him out earlier without taking on debt I preferred to avoid. This was a mistake. Time had run out on that plan, as on much else.

Radler thought he was the sole architect of our financial success and the only one of us who had any idea how to run a business. He told anyone who would listen that I was the social face of our business while he was the real business brains. His fear, exposed by the ordeal of the legal crisis, for which he was largely responsible as head of the division where they originated, seemed to have produced a bitter and galling response that he smarmily concealed in discussion between us. I still doubted that he could promise the U.S. attorney anything useful and thought he would be back to us eventually, pretending that he had only been exploring alternatives, as [co-defendants Peter] Atkinson and [Mark] Kipnis had. I would have to consider how to partition the private companies, disentangle our interests from his, and end the association.

When we returned to Toronto in August 2005, David Radler’s lawyer had just given formal notice of his settlement talks with the U.S. attorney. I still couldn’t believe Radler would take the plunge, though I was well familiar with his pessimism, and nervosity. He had shown in 1986 at Dominion Stores (a derelict Argus Corporation supermarket company) that he had no staying power. Even though he had certainly not created the mess there, and had, in fact, helped to resolve it, he scurried out to Vancouver, leaving Peter White and me, on one day’s notice, to clean it up. His nerves could not take the pressure. Having previously disparaged religion and occasionally expressed skepticism (though not in my presence; direct confrontations with me were not his métier) about my conversion to and practice of Roman Catholicism, he had become a Lubavitcher Jew. He had met the late Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn, the practising Lubavitcher leader.

Radler shooed the press away from his office at times, claiming a prayer meeting was in progress, and told an interviewer that he considered the whole attack on us to be “Go for the Jewish guy.” This was an explanation that left my presence inexplicable in the public relations and litigious pogrom he claimed to detect, unless I was included because my wife is Jewish.

We had known each other for 36 years. There was no denying Radler’s hard work and his success in putting together the hundreds of small newspapers we acquired in both Canada and the United States. We had sat together in Montreal delicatessens the way young men and small businessmen do, dreaming and planning what we could next achieve with our company. Perhaps I did detect the envy and small-mindedness at times that now oozed all over the pages of the Special Committee reports and tried to ease it, but I never suspected it was festering on this scale. I knew he often mocked my vocabulary, speeches, or writing as vanity and affectation, but I took this in stride, and often he professed to be an admirer. We knew little of each other, really. I have no idea who any of his close friends are, and in the 17 years of our marriage, Barbara and I dined with the Radlers as a foursome only once or twice when business found us in the same city. But to chop me up like this for the delectation of criminal prosecutors, to destroy me—could the envy have been so great? And envy of what? He was prominent in the Jewish circles he cared about. He had made himself quite prominent in Vancouver and to some degree in Chicago. He was a wealthy man. His children are high achievers, and his family is close. His arrangement with the prosecutors would eliminate all complaints about the community newspapers, where he had seen his future, and which Breeden had set out to undo, and would trade a minimization of sentence for inculpation of the rest of us. He would prosper. The opprobrium of being branded a felon and a squealer and perjurer would not have been overly bothersome to him. This was a straight business decision, perhaps. But the David Radler with whom I had worked for most of our 36 years of association would not have entertained such a course. With his background as a Chicago U.S. attorney, Valukas would have convinced him of the tactical wisdom of this course. Even allowing for that, a great deal of Radler’s testimony to the Special Committee was inexcusably bilious. All Breeden had to do was turn on the spigot and a great sluice of mud and merde poured out. In his three sessions with the Special Committee, I was referred to sarcastically as “Crossharbour,” and every mistake Radler ever made was explained as “Crossharbour strikes again.” According to Radler, I was extravagant; overly interested in Napoleon (a subject I had not referred to five times in my entire acquaintance with him); and a poseur who knew little about business, other than having good connections and some knowledge of deal making. Radler had “built our EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization—that is, operating profit] to $400 million,” he told the Special Committee, as if none of the rest of us had had anything to do with it. He had played a vital role in taking over the Daily Telegraph by “encouraging” me to do it, as if any encouragement from him were necessary.

There were also little outbursts of megalomania. Thus his statement, “You’ll have a hard time across the street if I am de-balled.” Across the street meant the Sun-Times, where his departure was greeted with stentorian glee, and where the escalators he had shut down because of their cost were restarted. Even before there were any suggestions of unapproved payments, he was urging Breeden, who, he conceded, now ran the company, not to emasculate him, for the sake of the morale of Sun-Times employees. The statement was both false and self-emasculating.

“I know how to handle Hamas,” he had grandly stated when explaining to the committee the management aircraft policy relating to the avoidance of terrorist threats. Such insights would doubtless have been gratefully received by the prime minister of Israel and by the Palestinian Authority.

All this material was released to us while I was in Europe, and when I read Radler’s comments on my return, it was obvious that he was cranking up to try to lay responsibility for perceived wrongdoing at my door, even though, at that point, the only wrongdoing there could have been was his.

It turned out that Radler’s telephoned wedding anniversary greetings to us in London, on July 21, 2005, were the last contact I would have with him. It was shortly after this that his counsel had told us that they “were no longer pursuing the same objective” we were, but [they] were happy to continue in the joint defence agreement otherwise. The suggestion was extraordinary. Their participation in the joint defence group—an arrangement that has lawyers pooling information—had continued for some 15 months while Radler and his lawyers played footsie with the prosecution. Surely that was a stretch of time that long surpassed the decency guidelines, even of the U.S. bar. They had doubtlessly been relaying the thoughts of co-defendants’ counsel to the prosecutors. I had been bankrolling a data collection system, since one of the major burdens in the case was the hundreds of thousands of documents that were now “evidence,” and Radler had been getting a free ride on this. He also had the benefit of knowing some of the exculpatory evidence we had turned up. We expelled his counsel from the group.

On Aug. 18, to put it in in Rooseveltese, “The hand that had for so long held the dagger, struck it into the back of its neighbour.” Dan Colson and Williams & Connolly both called to say that indictments were about to be handed down by the grand jury in Chicago. Lynda Schuler, Brendan Sullivan’s understudy, called back a few minutes later to say that Radler, Mark Kipnis, and Ravelston had been indicted on seven counts of fraud and that Radler would plead guilty to at least one of the charges and would be a co-operating witness.

Excerpted from A Matter of Principle by Conrad Black. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.