Black is back – and he's got scores to settle

Ian Burrell expects the disgraced media baron to come out of prison fighting

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:06

Conrad Black could be back, sooner rather than later. He may have raged against the "xenophobia" he found in Britain, its "back-scratching" media and – in spite of being granted a peerage – the "trackless mysteries of British socioeconomic strata". He may have once said he would never set foot in Britain again. But Lord Black of Crossharbour, shortly to be released on bail from a Florida prison, is planning his return.

And the disgraced former media mogul will find this country much changed since he last donned the ermine to make an appearance on the Tory benches at the House of Lords in July 2003. For the first time since Lord Black was granted a peerage by Tony Blair in 2001, a Conservative Prime Minister holds office – although the Tories withdrew the whip from the peer within minutes of his conviction for fraud in a Chicago court in 2007.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson, one of Lord Black's journalists when he owned The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator magazine (which Johnson edited) is now the Mayor of London.

Lord Black, in spite of his recent experiences with prison food, might also struggle to cope with changes in his London lifestyle. The mansion in London's Kensington where he and his socialite wife Barbara Amiel once held their salons, has long since been sold to a Mexican beauty queen for £13m in order to fund his vast legal costs. When Lord Black last came to London ahead of his court case in 2005 he was obliged to stay in a hotel room, albeit a suite at the £500-a-night Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.

But he will want to return, not least because he wishes to take legal action against the author Tom Bower, who documented his downfall in Conrad and Lady Black, a waspish account published by Harper Collins, owned by the rival media baron Rupert Murdoch. The book was sold as a story of "ambition and greed ... a modern-day classic of hubris". In an article penned from his prison cell and published by Tatler in 2007, Lord Black claimed that the book "plumbs profound depths of libel and prosaic clumsiness".

Bower would certainly contest any claim, having already successfully seen off a libel action brought over the same book by another media baron, Richard Desmond, who complained that Bower had demeaned him by saying that Lord Black had "ground into the dust" the owner of Express Newspapers.

Desmond claims to be a friend of Lord Black's and recently told this newspaper about a visit he had made to Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, where the peer is held. "They had orange uniforms, shackles; it was horrible," said Desmond. Lord Black, 65, retains many friends in high places in this country, such as the publisher Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Rocco Forte and Lord Saatchi.

When inmate number 18330-424 does emerge from prison, almost certainly within 900 days of being handed a six-and-a-half year sentence, he will be permitted to take up his place in the House of Lords, where he once sat alongside Baroness Thatcher and Lord Carrington. An attempt to prevent convicted criminals from sitting in the upper chamber was included in but then dropped from this year's Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.

During the course of her husband's ordeal, Lady Black has remained mostly at the couple's colonial-style mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Palm Beach, Florida. The former Sunday Times columnist was born in north London but emigrated to Canada as a teenager.

Sadly for her, the private jet has gone. Many family assets have had to be sold to pay for her husband's (so far) unsuccessful defence against accusations that the former chairman and chief executive of Hollinger International used the media company as a personal piggy bank to fund his extravagant lifestyle. Lord Black's conviction for skimming £6.1m from the company will now go before an appeal court, giving him fresh belief in his assertion that he would be vindicated by the legal system. He was also found guilty of obstructing the investigation into him by removing 13 boxes of evidence from his office.

In that Tatler article, Lord Black – then convinced that he would be acquitted – said that "Barbara and I look forward to returning to London... and then dividing our time between London and Canada". He promised to "be more observant of British sensibilities", suggesting that he would no longer be splurging $62,000 (£41,000) on a single party, as he did on Amiel's 60th birthday. "We will be ready for a quieter life," he said.

The couple are unlikely to give another outing to the outrageous fancy dress costumes they wore for a party given by Prince and Princess Michael of Kent in 1999, where the Telegraph owner came as Cardinal Richelieu and his wife as Marie Antoinette. The picture of their arrival at Kensington Palace was seen as evidence of Amiel's boast that "I have an extravagance that knows no bounds".

Lord Black's most recent party was thrown inside prison to celebrate the decision of the Supreme Court that called into question his conviction. The incarcerated former head of the world's third largest global newspaper empire enjoyed pizza and ice cream.

Sources in Canada suggest that, following his release, he will first head to the country of his birth. In Toronto, the couple were accustomed to entertaining Canada's élite in the swanky Bridle Path neighbourhood, where Lord Black retains the family home that he inherited. This week, Edward Greenspan, the criminal lawyer who represented Lord Black at his 2007 trial, predicted he would receive "a warm reception" when he returned. "I think that he'll be embraced when he comes back to Canada," Greenspan told The Vancouver Sun. "He will continue to live here and be a productive member of Canadian society."

Many Canadians, however, are still angry that Lord Black renounced his Canadian citizenship in order to take up a British peerage. So far the Canadian authorities have yet to rule on whether to rescind Lord Black's Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour that country can bestow.

One Canadian blogger, David Climenhaga, wasn't exactly tying yellow ribbons either. "Let's show a little spine for once in dealing with this undesirable former Canadian," he wrote. "He is a citizen of the United Kingdom. He is a resident of the United States. Let him live in one of those places!"

By choice or by necessity, Lord Black of Crossharbour could soon be crossing the Atlantic.

What he's kept and lost

The houses

A townhouse in Cottesmore Gardens, Kensington, (sold for £13m), an apartment in Park Avenue, New York (sold for $8.5m). He still owns a grand colonial-style mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Black family home in the opulent Bridle Path district of Toronto, which Lord Black inherited in 1976 on the death of his father, a wealthy brewer.

The jet

Gone is access to the company Gulf Stream IV in which the Blacks ran up bills of £3.5m a year flying from New York to South Seas islands and stopping off in Seattle to enjoy the opera.

The newspapers

Lord Black is no longer chairman and chief executive of Hollinger International, which was in 2003 the third largest newspaper empire in the world including titles such as The Daily Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post, Canada's National Post and hundreds of smaller community newspapers in North America.

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