Black takes PM to court over his `lost' peerage

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AN ONTARIO Supreme judge will be asked today to choose between the wounded ego of newspaper proprietor Conrad Black, who wants to be a British Lord, and the politically driven prerogatives of Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, who has blocked the Black peerage.

At stake is much more than the ambition of Mr Black, who seems desperate to follow other Canadians who have become prominent newspaper proprietors in the United Kingdom, such as Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson of Fleet. The blocking of the peerage is also linked to the newspaper war that has broken out in Canada.

At least, that is what Mr. Black has alleged. He is taking Mr Chretien to court, claiming the Prime Minister misused his office through "negligent misrepresentation" to Tony Blair and the Queen in revenge for critical articles about him in Mr Black's new newspaper, the National Post.

Lawyers for the Canadian government will try today to have Mr Black's suit thrown out on the basis that the courts have no business adjudicating on the advice the Canadian leader gives the Queen or the British PM. Mr. Black's lawyers will say Mr Chretien had no business interfering, because Mr Black's hastily acquired British citizenship overrides any limitations pertaining to his Canadian citizenship.

Given that Mr Black is only claiming C$25,000 (pounds 10,500) damages and a declaration from the court, it also seems clear the newspaper proprietor has resorted to the legal process as a forum to vent his frustrations and cause Mr Chretien some political pain.

The legal issue is whether Canada's long opposition to Canadians accepting foreign awards that confer title, status or privilege (as distinct from decorations for bravery or service) applies to those who obtain a second citizenship. The position goes back to a 1919 resolution,but it continues on the basis that titles are inconsistent with an egalitarian society.

Lord Beaverbrook was ennobled before the resolution, and the first Lord Thomson gave up his Canadian citizenship to accept the honour. His son, Kenneth Thomson, whose Globe and Mail is in fierce rivalry with the National Post, declined to take up the seat he inherited in the Lords.

The issue arose again in June as British officials were preparing the Queen's honours list. The Anglophile Mr Black has made no secret of his pursuit of the peerage he considers his due as the result of taking control of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.

He assiduously courted Margaret Thatcher, and there was a suggestion she considered nominating him in 1988. On the strength of that Canada, then led by Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, passed an order- in-council reaffirming the policy against titles.

Mr Black's chance finally came this spring when William Hague included the Telegraph owner as one of his nominees for the list. Following protocol, the Government consulted officials in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. The British High Commission in Ottawa was told that the Canadian policy against titles stood, but Mr Black alleges in the court documents that a Canadian official told the British officials the difficulty could be overcome if Mr Black were to obtain dual citizenship.

But by this time the nomination had come to Mr Blair's attention, and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, processed British citizenship for Mr Black personally in less than a week, when such applications can take years. Although Mr Black divides his time between his businesses in the UK, Canada, the US and Israel, he claims residency in London.

Mr Chretien learned about the proposed nomination three days before it was to be announced, and intervened personally with Mr Blair. The Governor General was told to contact the Queen to convey Canada's opposition. Mr Blair withdrew the nomination and told Mr Black it was because of the Chretien opposition.

Mr Black was so angry he tracked down Mr Chretien, who was attending the Group of Eight summit with Mr Blair in Bonn, Germany, and told him he had 48 hours to withdraw his objections.

Mr Chretien declined, but according to Mr Black the Canadian leader complained about negative coverage and personal attacks in the National Post. The newspaper had run a series of articles detailing patronage awards and other government grants that had benefited Mr Chretien's parliamentary constituency in Shawinigan, Quebec.

Mr Black claims he launched the lawsuit against Mr Chretien on a matter of principle. "If what the Canadian government was doing was trying to prevent my right to buy a new toothbrush, I would object just as strenuously," he told a television interviewer recently. But he wants to be in the Lords so he could have debates with "leading figures from practically every field in British life".