At the end of October, just before a Chicago appeals court tossed out two of Conrad Black’s four convictions, BBC Radio Four’s The Media Show aired an interview with the former newspaper baron.
In the 15-minute spot Black was asked about the state of the media today—“It’s slowly collapsing under the weight of its own substandards”—his take on the proper role of newspaper owners—“The buck stops with the proprietor”—and finally, whether he would ever get back into the news business, to which question he laid down his conditions: “Not as a chief occupation and not in a public company but it might happen.” Black’s response triggered speculation about his eventual return to the industry. But what really stood out was that Black, until recently scorned and easily dismissed as just another white-collar villain, was being asked such questions at all. It was a stunning reversal from a time when it seemed the only thing the world wanted to hear from Conrad Black’s lips was: “I did it.”
Even before his four-month- long trial in 2007 began, Black’s many critics were adamant it would end with him shattered and alone in prison, his reputation forever destroyed. To the great frustration of his accusers, though, Black’s belief in his eventual vindication was unshakable—even after he was convicted on four counts of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007 and sentenced to 6½ years in prison. Instead, Black defied the odds. After an astonishing journey to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, his legal team helped shoot down the honest services clause, which had been used against him. The move robbed the Justice Department of one of its most cherished weapons for prosecuting white-collar criminals. By July Black was free on bail.
Perhaps more astonishingly, Black’s dark journey has earned him, if not sympathy, then at least admiration from many unlikely quarters. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Jeet Heer argued that prison had imbued the erstwhile lord with a kind of nobility, and described how his own view of Black shifted from that of an “insufferable . . . oppressive capitalist” to “a victim of prosecutorial overkill.” Michael Wolff, who founded the online news aggregator Newser and has battled Black in print (Black once called Wolff a “syntactically challenged, scatologically obsessed myth-maker”), nonetheless wrote that as Black works to rebuild his reputation, “There is no retirement, no retreat, no licking of wounds, no quiescence or solitude for Black. He is the ultimate public man.” But perhaps Black’s most high-profile and rewarding victory came when the Wall Street Journal formally apologized for being too quick to buy into the prosecution’s case. Overreaching prosecutors, the paper’s editors observed, “know the media won’t write about the legal complexities, and they know juries are often inclined to find a rich CEO guilty of something. We regret that in the case of Mr. Black, that failure of media oversight included us.”
To be sure, Black is still a convicted felon. In the cold eyes of the U.S. justice system he stole $600,000 from his former company, Hollinger International. There is also the very real possibility that, by the time this magazine hits stands, Black will have been sent back to prison by District Court Judge Amy St. Eve. (He was to appear for re-sentencing on his remaining two convictions, fraud and obstruction, on Dec. 2.) But Black has already succeeded in batting away the vast majority of the charges against him. In 2004, the infamous Breedan report originally accused him of looting Hollinger for US$400 million and prosecutors initially levied 14 charges against him. Another partial consolation came in mid-November when the Canada Revenue Agency dropped a criminal investigation for tax evasion. (Though it still demanded he pay $3 million in back taxes.) Even if Black is sent back to the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida, he will have already scored a moral triumph, a comeback in spirit, if not in actual liberty.
The rehabilitation of Black’s reputation began early in his incarceration. The Globe’s Margaret Wente pegged its genesis to a photo that surfaced of Black alongside a fellow prisoner, smiling in an open shirt and holding a book—“just another guy in a prison suit,” as she wrote this past summer. Once the wealth and status he coveted so much, and which riled so many, were stripped away, it forced a fresh look at all that had been lost in that pursuit.
Black has done much to maintain an air of normalcy throughout his incarceration, remaining in the public eye with regular columns for the National Post. Yet he’s also been forthright about his time in prison, and he seems to have genuinely found empathy with the abused and disadvantaged he met behind bars. He emerged an advocate for prison reform, describing the millions of Americans facing jail time or probation as “an ostracized, voiceless legion of the walking dead; they are no one’s constituency.” Perhaps as he was teaching his fellow inmates U.S. history and helping several of them obtain their high-school diplomas, some lessons flowed the other way too.
He has certainly shown a willingness to smooth the more abrasive aspects of his character. In the BBC radio interview Black was still his old self in many ways, opinionated and defiant. But when asked about those who see him as “bombastic” and “arrogant,” he was unusually penitent. “I suppose I can see why people would think bombastic from some things I’ve written, though not recently. I regret it if I come across as you said, but if I do it’s up to me to try to do better.”
The reality is, Black’s resurrection can likely never be complete, insomuch as he will never regain the influence and wealth that came with overseeing one of the largest media empires on the planet. Black is barred from serving in a public company, and faces crushing legal bills and a multitude of lawsuits that will leave him battling for years to come.
What matters, though, is that the world has no longer made up its mind when it comes to Conrad Black. Reclaiming some measure of control over his destiny is more of a comeback than many thought Black would ever achieve.