Black's ex-colleagues take aim at 'five-star girl' Amiel

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The Independent US

Assailed by lawsuits and criminal charges and still brooding on the loss of a media empire that was once the third largest in the world, Lord Black of Crossharbour has now to contend with a public attack on his marriage by several of his most senior former lieutenants at the Daily Telegraph.

The Telegraph's former editor Charles Moore, and chief executive Jeremy Deedes are among those who help trace the peer's downfall to his 1992 marriage to Barbara Amiel, the columnist who drew him deeper into a rich-list world of celebrity and influence. Their comments, in interviews for the forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair, come only two months before Lord Black goes to trial to fight charges that he used his network of media companies to fund a lavish lifestyle in the US, the UK and Canada.

Mr Deedes tells the magazine that he used to call Ms Amiel "the distraction". He said: "Barbara is a five-star girl and she needs five-star maintenance. He was willing to do whatever she wanted, it would appear."

Charles Moore comments: "She led him away from the company of journalists to the company of the super-rich." Whereas an ideal evening for Mr Black prior to his marriage in 1992 might have been dinner with a right-wing politician or columnist, favoured guests soon became the likes of Donald Trump, Princess Michael of Kent, the Duchess of York and Joan Collins.

"He did want society's acceptance. I could never quite figure out whose," said Mr Moore. Of Ms Amiel, he added: "One day she is kind, warm, helpful. Then she'll turn her head around and barely look at you. In social relations, she was definitely giving orders to him - it was not the other way around."

Both men also complain about the influence Lady Black had over her husband on political matters and of her meddling in staff hirings and firings. Mr Deedes said: "Barbara ruffled feathers with her views. 'I think I better ask the little woman,' he would say when certain subjects came up."

The Hollinger media empire that once gave Lord Black the keys to the British establishment has been broken up since he stepped down from the business in 2003. Federal prosecutors in the US accuse him of orchestrating a "corporate kleptocracy", looting at least $92m from the New York-listed business, Hollinger International, while his Canadian company, Hollinger Inc, is suing him for $700m, alleging widespread asset stripping. He and his wife had their worldwide assets frozen by an Ontario court last year.

The forthcoming criminal trial, set for 5 March, is sure to be a media circus with a defiant Lord Black promising "vindication" before returning to "a quieter life". According to a gossip columnist at Lord Black's former paper the Chicago Sun-Times, the peer was handing out T-shirts to his friends as Christmas presents emblazoned with the slogan "Conrad Will Win". No one has yet been photographed in one.

The magazine also quotes Lady Thatcher, who says she "does not cut and run just because someone gets into difficulties. Conrad is innocent until proven guilty". But other former friends have shunned him.

Dominic Lawson, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, says Lord Black often muses on the society friends who have stuck by him. "I think Conrad feels the Jews and Catholics have been very loyal and the Episcopalians less so," he says. "The Jews and Catholics are more accustomed to persecution."

The latest issue of Vanity Fair goes on sale on 12 January.