Money and power, not justice, may decide beleaguered lord's fate

By Dave Brown
Citizen Special
Nov 27, 2005

Conrad Black still has a fan in this corner because I see him, potentially, not as the central suspect in a major crime, but the trophy in a massive campaign to hunt down a great shark.

When I first started covering courts, I believed a person was innocent until proven guilty. Still do. Newspapers used to insist on it. So did the courts.

Things change.

During my career, I watched the justice system devolve into what I came to call The Legal Industry. American author Tom Wolfe, critically acclaimed as "the spot-on chronicler of the way we live," in a 1987 novel gave it another name: The Bonfire of the Vanities. We saw the same things and seemed to draw the same conclusion. The protection system our forefathers designed for us, as ours, has been taken over by its insiders, and remade to serve its interests, not ours.

At the end of the Wolfe novel the reader is left wondering if the main character, Sherman McCoy, a flashy Wall Street broker, is innocent or guilty. That detail by then no longer matters. McCoy is broke, in jail, struggling without lawyers to prove his innocence, and giving as his job description "professional victim."

When it comes right down to it, a legal battle is war, its weaponry is money and the winner is the side with the most firepower. One side is the prosecution, armed by the wealthiest and most powerful country on Earth. Once turned on, it's a machine that must win. It becomes not a matter of justice, but a need to win. Those representing it have their reputations and their futures on the line. Or as Mr. Wolfe put it, their vanities.

The "bonfire" is the whole legal system, around which the insiders gather to warm their hands and their backsides, and enjoy its comfort. To keep it burning, they feed it an occasional McCoy.

In 1996, I went to work one morning and discovered I worked for Conrad Black. He had just added the Citizen to his empire. In the scope of things, I saw my world of journalism as a lagoon. A big shark had just moved in. I saw myself as a crab, charged with maintaining a comfortable stretch of beach by sweeping it every day with a column. I felt no threat. Sharks don't eat crabs.

The lagoon changed quickly, and for the better. Other sharks had become lazy and, now challenged, responded. One of them, overfed and lethargic -- let's call it the Globe and Mail -- shook off the barnacles and reinvented itself. Schools of reporters that whipped and turned and targeted as if led by one mind, suddenly started thinking for themselves.

The view in the lagoon improved. The water became less murky. Wow, thought the crab, when one critter can make so much change so fast -- that's a hero.

Years later, the shark left the lagoon, and things started to get murky again. Nothing clouds the water faster than a bucketful of allegations. Media that earlier gathered 'round the shark like pilot fish suddenly became brave barracudas. Prosecutors threw allegations like chum to the gathering schools of reporters, once again wheeling and turning and writing as if with one mind.

Is it true, as alleged, that Conrad Black stole millions of dollars?

That's too deep for a crab. He can only answer that question with other questions.

Does the shark have any hope of proving otherwise? Is he under attack because his profile makes his teeth a worthy trophy? In this must-win kind of legal war, a common strategy is to run the other side out of ammunition. The prosecution is not going to run out of money. The smart play for anybody under attack is to make a deal. That's not justice, but with spin doctoring, it looks like it.

A recent CTV news report estimated Mr. Black's legal costs currently running at $1 million a month, and said he needs more lawyers to go through the prosecution's case, now estimated at two million pages. Any file that big has graduated from case to poopstorm, and that's what sank Sherman McCoy.

Martha Stewart knows what that feels like. She lost the battle, but won the public opinion war. She survived the Wolfe bonfire with grace, dignity and personal economic upturn. I hold the same hope for my old boss.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005