I first met Conrad Black at the wedding of a mutual friend in Toronto. In fact, Black, Mike Duffy and I were three people rolled into one to give a little spine to the man about to end his years of bachelorhood— quite a combination. And who, pray tell, was the lucky groom who had entrusted these three musketeers with such an important role on such a critical day? The internationally respected globe-trotting correspondent Brian Stewart, whom Black had gone to school with when the two were growing up in Toronto, and whom Duffy and I had worked with in the Ottawa bureau of the cbc during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Brian's two lives, personal and professional, came together on a beautiful summer day in September 1989, and the three of us were determined to do our part. Black had the chore of managing the ring; Duffy and I were to ensure that the guests were directed to the appropriate seats. And we would all, of course, be up front when the ceremony took place. Everything was going perfectly: arrivals were on time, Brian was in an acceptable state of nervousness, and the minister was ready, willing and clearly able. With everyone seated, we were standing at the front and could hear the arrival of the bridal party, with the beautiful, incredibly charming and seriously funny Tina Srebotnjak at centre stage.
The next moment was supposed to involve a musically accompanied procession down the stately centre aisle of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. But there was a problem, and for what seemed like an eternity we had no idea what it was. Feet shuffled. Throats cleared. The crowd began to murmur. And then word was relayed from aisle to aisle that no one had escorted Tina's mother to her seat. She was stranded at the King Street entrance.
At the very moment that I was realizing this had been my blunder, my eyes met Black's. He had a look on his face that I suspect he normally reserved for his butler. His head was slightly lowered, and then he sharply tilted it back with his nose pointed directly down the centre aisle to where Vida Srebotnjak was waiting. He didn't say anything. He didn't need to. It was clear what the message was: Get her. Now
The rest of the wedding went off without a hitch, a wonderful start to what has been a wonderful marriage. And then it was back to our respective lives, Black to managing his millions and building his newspaper empire, and the rest of us to the more basic grunt work of journalism. Our paths crossed a few times over the years, but it wasn't until 1999 and the very first One on One
that I actually had a chance to sit down and talk with the man, who at that time was a London-based major international tycoon. He was also involved in what had become a bitter fight with the then prime minister, Jean Chrétien, over his citizenship.
Black had been offered a British peerage— a seat in the House of Lords— but Chrétien countered that if Black took the offer he would have to renounce his Canadian citizenship. To back his position, the Prime Minister relied on an eighty-year-old parliamentary document, the Nickle Resolution, in which Ottawa called on London not to bestow any titles of honour on Canadians. Chrétien's critics argued that his position had nothing to do with Nickle and everything to do with one of Black's newspapers, the National Post
, which had been attacking Chrétien on a variety of issues with a great deal of vigour. When we had our conversation, Black was still a Canadian, the peerage was on hold, and the fight with Chrétien was very much at play.
1999 - 09 – 12
Peter Mansbridge: I was thinking on the way into this interview, what would I have been calling you if the Prime Minister hadn't blocked this appointment?
Conrad Black: Same as you are now.
PM: Would it have been Lord Black?
CB: In the first place, that wouldn't apply to you. And in the second place, part of the understanding, and indeed what we were told by the Canadian government a week before the Canadian Prime Minister's intervention, was that as long as I didn't use the title in Canada there'd be no problem.
PM: Let's assume I was in Britain.
CB: But in any case, incidentally, I wouldn't expect anyone to call me that.
PM: Even in Britain?
CB: No. I mean, they can if they want. If I were the bearer of the title, they could if they wanted. But I'm not a very formal person.
PM: I was wondering about it though, because, as Max Aitken decided on Lord Beaverbrook, he came up with a name to go with the "Lord." Did this never cross your mind? As close as it got—It did get awfully close, and you may still get it?
CB: The British have signed off on it. I can pick it up as soon as the Canadian objection is removed.
PM: You must have thought of a name.
CB: No, I haven't. And in any case, this is a life peerage. Beaverbrook was a hereditary peer. I haven't really thought of it, no. Normally life peers take their surnames and just use that title, but it is premature to talk about these things. The British Prime Minister's note to me said that I could work that out with the King of Arms, and he will be calling eventually, he assures me.
PM: Before we get into actual details of this suit [Black would be facing Chrétien in court over his alleged abuse of power], I want to try to understand the relationship that you have with Jean Chrétien, because you've known each other for several years.
CB: Certainly he was very cordial for twenty years, up until a couple of months ago.
PM: But what was the extent of it? Were you friends, acquaintances? How would you—
CB: I would say friendly acquaintances. He used to come to our annual dinner sometimes, and he spoke at it once very amusingly, and I used to call upon him in Ottawa sometimes. I would see him when he came to London. So it was very cordial.
PM: You even had a lunch for him, did you not, when he was running for the leadership?
CB: That's right.
PM: How often was the contact while he was prime minister, before this event? Did you talk on the phone?
CB: Sometimes, yeah. Oh, things would come up where he would quite rightly— there's nothing wrong with this— want to mention something of national interest that he expressed a perfectly reasonable hope that we'd editorially be supportive of. It was usually not on partisan matters; there was never anything wrong with it. Usually it was things to do with constitutional questions and that sort of thing. And he phoned me sometimes. I almost never phoned him, because I don't believe in bothering holders of great offices. Their lines are busy enough and I assume if they want to talk to me they'll call me, but that happened sometimes.
PM: In any of these conversations over the years, up until this happened earlier this year, did you ever raise this possibility with him, that you may be approached? Because, I assume, most people were expecting this. The owner of the Daily Telegraph
has always been in the British House of Lords. So you must have been expecting this was going to happen at some point. Did you ever raise it with him?
CB: No, because I never thought that it really was any of his business. You see, years ago, when it first became a deemed possibility, I commissioned some legal research, and there was no legislation in this country and there was no policy, and I'm a British resident. And since it wasn't an area where there was any legal obligation for the Government of Canada to express an opinion, I didn't feel, in the first place, that he had any particular standing in it, and in the second place, it was hypothetical until it happened.
PM: We'll get to that in a moment, because I guess that one is the debatable point: whether the Nickel Resolution has some impact.
CB: Look, Peter, that really isn't the core of this whole matter. The core of the matter is that on the recommendation of the Government of Canada, as communicated to me by the British Prime Minister, I applied for and was granted British citizenship while retaining my Canadian citizenship. That was the Canadian government's recommendation. I followed the recommendation. Then the Prime Minister of Canada purported to intervene and claim that the Queen of the United Kingdom, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, could not confer an honour on me as a citizen of the United Kingdom for services rendered in the United Kingdom. That is the core of this. The Prime Minister has no standing whatsoever. The Nickel Resolution is a sideshow, and no, it isn't binding, and that didn't pass the Senate. There is no policy in Canada, but I accept there is some prerogative for the Canadian government in matters of Canadian citizens. But there's no prerogative for them to try to create a category of citizen in a foreign country that is inferior in rights to other citizens of that country, particularly when they've recommended the individual in question become a citizen of that country.
PM: All right, I don't want to lose everybody on this, but the Nickel Resolution we both referred to is— what, eighty years old? It was 1919. It was a statement passed through the House of Commons asking Buckingham Palace not to appoint Canadians to titles.
CB: Not quite. What it actually did was ask the Canadian government not to request the British monarch to appoint Canadian citizens resident in Canada to titles. So even on that basis it has no application to me.
PM: All right, let me get to what is perhaps one of the other cores of the lawsuit, and certainly the one that has grabbed a lot of the attention. That's the suggestion in the document that the Prime Minister acted because of his unhappiness with the stories that have been written in one of your papers, the National Post
CB: I don't think his objections are confined to it. I think he's a little grumpy about what the Ottawa Citizen
has written too.
PM: Let's see what it actually says in the statement. "He, the prime minister, also stated he was not kindly treated by the National Post
, a paper published by the plaintiff"—yourself. "This reference to newspaper articles about the Prime Minister was the third occasion within six months that Jean Chrétien mentioned to the plaintiff his dissatisfaction with published comments in the National Post
." Now, how did those conversations, or that exchange of views, take place?
CB: I don't think we can try this case ex parte
on this program. There is a judicial process and we have to respect that, so I'm not going to go too much beyond what's public knowledge now.
PM: Part of the public knowledge is your lawyer suggesting that the Prime Minister phoned you in Austria at three o'clock in the morning with an—
CB: No, he didn't suggest it; he stated it, and it's true. The Prime Minister hasn't denied that. In fact, I think his office confirmed that. And it was following that conversation and that lengthy letter that he wrote complaining about our coverage of the question of economic development grants—
PM: In his riding.
CB: —in his constituency was published. And I encouraged him to send this letter and promised of course we would publish it and we would flag it prominently and publish it without comment, which we did then.
PM: So how do you react? I suppose it's not unusual for a prime minister, and you've known many here and abroad, to suggest to you that your papers are being unfair to them. Or is it unusual?
CB: He's been a little more consistent and— to take a needful word— imaginative in his putting forth of that view than other prime ministers whom I have known here and elsewhere.
PM: What do you mean by that?
CB: He— Again, we're not adducing evidence here, but this is a theme that is going to emerge when we get to the pretrial phase. I haven't had a conversation with him in the last two years that he didn't mention some aspect of my status as a press owner—not always threateningly, but rarely particularly appreciatively. I must be clear here, I'm not suggesting there were direct threats of any kind. But it has been a theme, and this whole issue of freedom of expression is one that counsel was right to put in our statement and will be focused on when evidence is taken, including the Prime Minister's.
PM: Do you think there is linkage from one to the other?
CB: Yes, and I think that will emerge clearly in the evidence. There is no question there is linkage, and my counsel in fact confirmed that with all sorts of people from whom we shall also be taking evidence.
PM: But you mean linkage between the fact that he wasunhappy with the National Post
and the fact that he blocked your appointment?
CB: Yes. Yes.
PM: You're comfortable in saying that.
CB: I'm comfortable in the accuracy of that assertion, but I'm not— I regret that it's the case. Incidentally, I don't accept that our coverage of him has been unfair. After that call, particularly. I was in Salzburg at the time, in Austria.
PM: This is the three-o'clock-in-the-morning call.
CB: Yeah. But I go to bed late. I don't want to martyr myself; in fact I wasn't asleep, but it was under active consideration when he phoned. But I read the entire file after that to make sure I hadn't missed anything, and I don't think our coverage was unfair at all. But that's another issue. If we had defamed him, if we'd really done anything other than point out the facts, then I certainly would have asked the editor to be much more careful and publish corrective pieces if we had been unjust. And not because he was prime minister. We're not in the defamation business. All we did was point out that in fact the person to whom he supposedly sold his shares in this enterprise sent them back with liquidated damages to his trustee, and he knew perfectly well he was still the equitable owner of those shares. And for him to assert in the House of Commons and to the public that he wasn't is in fact not true, and that's all we wrote.
PM: We're moving into another story there, but suffice it to say that you are comfortable with the stories that were written in the Post
. Were you comfortable the time you talked to him on the phone, or did you refresh yourself?
CB: Well, I was concerned because he clearly felt aggrieved. You know, I get letters from people all the time, much less prominent than he is, who have been referred to in newspapers of ours in this country and in other countries, and I always look into them because, you know, we've got to be careful about things like this. We run a quality operation and we're very concerned about matters like this. As is well-known, I've often been libelled myself, and I myself have often sued. I've certainly received a great many libel writs, and I'm very sensitive to the virtue of always having truth as a defence, or indeed as the basis of a complaint. So you always want to find out what the facts are. And I always look into it, and I did particularly for him, but I would for anyone.
PM: Why the British House of Lords? Why would you like to be sitting there?
CB: First of all, I want to address this myth that's been propagated that I've been slaveringly chasing after a peerage. I have not. All I did was answer the phone. It's an honour, like the Order of Canada, and one accepts honours, and it's a nice honour. Secondly, it is contrary to the second myth that is now being propagated, that it's so absurdly anachronistic a place that it's almost shaming to be asked to join it.
PM: So it's not fox hunts and tea parties.
CB: It is now going to be an entirely meritocratic place, including the one hundred hereditaries who elect themselves out of a total of many hundreds that are there now, and you find there the leading figures from practically every field in British life. The retired field marshals, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the former prime ministers and senior members of the government, the previous governments.
PM: You can quite possibly be in the British Cabinet from the British House of Lords.
CB: Carrington was foreign secretary.
PM: Some say you put out hope one day for that.
PM: I'll take that as a no.
CB: Yehudi Menuhin was a peer, Bertrand Russell was a peer, Field Marshal Montgomery was a peer. It is a place where you do encounter a lot of interesting people, and particularly the foreign policy debates are very interesting. You get all the former foreign secretaries and great authorities in the field like the late Max Beloff, for example. Great academics. It's really quite an interesting debating chamber, but—
PM: It's similar to the Canadian Senate.
CB: No. Good heavens, no. With all due respect, there are some impressive senators, but the Senate is not taken all that seriously. The House of Lords has in it practically all the outstandingly exceptional people in virtually every walk of British life, including all the academic disciplines; as I said, the military; the established church, at least, and some others— the former chief rabbis, for example.
PM: Why not a Canadian Senate seat for you?
CB: I haven't been asked.
PM: But if you were.
CB: I haven't been asked.
PM: If you were, would that in any way interest you?
CB: I don't know. I'd think about it, I'd think about it. But (smiles) I see what you're deviously
creating here, inciting in the minds of your viewers this idea that I'd be interested in a British honour but not a Canadian one.
PM: No, I'm just wondering whether you could do both.
CB: Now that you've— You know something, that's a very timely comment, because in the last conversation I had with Jean Chrétien, I mentioned that sort of jokingly, saying that I could be a senator too. And I said, "As you know, generally I support the Liberals," which happens also to be true, by the way. I haven't always, but I generally am.
PM: That will frighten a few people.
CB: It may do, but it's the case. I supported Mulroney because he was a friend of mine, as Turner was, but I was in favour of free trade and that was a big issue at that time. But I was not a supporter of Mr. Stanfield or of Joe Clark. Not that I don't respect them as individuals, but I wasn't a supporter of them.
PM: So what did Mr. Chrétien say when you suggested . . . ?
CB: He didn't respond. Didn't respond. He found the whole idea so esoteric that he went on to other things.
PM: But you obviously don't.
CB: No, I think it is rather esoteric, and it was in that vein that I mentioned it. At that point I was emphasizing the fact that I was not prepared to renounce my Canadian citizenship as Thomson did, for example.
CB: If I did, then I could collect the peerage tomorrow. But that's not the issue.
PM: Why wouldn't you?
CB: Because the real issue here is not the honour. The issue is the 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. I hate to belabour this point because I accept that the honour is not terribly important. But whether I'm a member of the House of Lords is of no interest to anybody, not, frankly, of overwhelming interest to me. But what is of interest to me, and it should be an interest to some of your viewers, [is] this business of the Prime Minister of Canada committing illegalities to discriminate against an individual and to abridge and infringe upon his rights as a Canadian and as a Canadian and as a citizen of the U.K.
CB: Illegalities, yeah.
PM: And some of the language here—"illegalities," "abuse of power," "malfeasance of power" . . .
CB: I didn't say "crime." "Mis
PM: It's almost sounding Nixonian here.
CB: He's not— We're not alleging crimes. These are not, these are not—
CB: —offences that carry custodial sentences.
CB: Illegalities, yeah.
PM: That's not a crime?
CB: Not necessarily. A parking ticket is an illegality.
PM: All right, so it's somewhere between a parking ticket and acrime.
CB: Yeah. The fact is, he gave wilfully erroneous advice to the chief of state for reasons that we are confident will be proved to be malicious. Now, if you brush up on your Bagehot or the constitutional specialist of your choice, you'll find that that's not what prime ministers are supposed to be doing. But as I said, the core of the case of the other matters— the misfeasance— is the Canadian government gave us advice, we acted on the advice and they reneged a week later. But the real core of the case is the one I said earlier. They've no standing in my status as a U.K. citizen.
PM: Let me briefly go back to the devious point you were suggesting that I was coming up with— that actually you came up with— and that is that you'd go for a British appointment before a Canadian appointment.
CB: No, I wouldn't. The fact is, I think if I was offered [one] in Canada I would probably accept, but it was never offered. It was sort of hinted at by Trudeau once but it wasn't offered, and I didn't leap at it. But I had peerages hinted at quite a few times and I didn't leap at them either. In general I accept honours when they're offered. I have the Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil; when it was offered to me by the Brazilian ambassador in London, I accepted it.
PM: You didn't clear that one first of all with Ottawa?
CB: As a matter of fact I suspect that they did clear it, but not because I asked them to.
PM: Mulroney, your friend, never talked to you about the Senate?
CB: No, never did.
PM: Does that bother you?
CB: No, not a bit.
PM: How far is this going to go? Both sides seem to be really pawing the ground in their preparations for this.
CB: We'll try the issue. If we want judgment and we're convinced— When I say "we" I'm not engaging in some sort of baronial collective noun here. The counsel— and I've shown that to a number of distinguished barristers— are convinced that we're going to prevail.
PM: But they [Chrétien's legal team] sound equally convinced that they can prevail. And it just seems to be one of these things that could be in the courts for a long time.
CB: That's what we have courts for.
PM: How far are you prepared to go? If you lose one round, does this keep going? Can you see this in the Supreme Court one day?
CB: Not as a result of our taking it there. No, I don't think so; I have my doubts about that, I'm not sure. I certainly have no standing to speak for the other side. I'm not engaging in gamesmanship, and I don't really see where their case is. I think what we're going to get are a lot of dilatory procedures and spurious motions to change venue and change the court, and delays and motions to strike and requests for particulars. But when we start taking evidence on discovery, then I think things will move along.
PM: You like military analogies. Is there room for this battle that's shaping up?
CB: I wish to emphasize, Peter, whether I'm a peer or not really has no importance, but there is an issue of principle involved here. That's the only thing that lends this any significance. I mean, I agree that it's a news story because of the personalities involved, but—
PM: Do you think the public cares about this?
PM: Or does it have any impact on the way the public sees you?
CB: I can't judge that. I feel— pardon the ghastly expression—that my "image" is that of a Frankenstein monster that's been lurching about for twenty-five years, and I have absolutely no idea what animates it at times, but I must say, from the press reception, the letters and things that I've received, most of what I've heard is quite favourable. I think a good many people see this as a case of an individual abusing a political office for petty reasonsand overreaching his jurisdiction. And as we take his evidence and that of all those around and beneath him, I think that impression is going to be reinforced. I don't know why they're persevering with it. If they want to, we'll stick with it until the judicial system renders judgment. That's all we want.
PM: That could be years?
CB: No, I don't think so. The dilatory procedures won't go for more than about six months. After that we start taking sworn evidence. Then that raises the game quite a bit.
PM: So within the next year.
CB: Yeah, I think we'll have—
PM: Will it resolve—
CB: —six months of posturing. After that I think you'll start to see things moving along.
In the end, Conrad Black gave up his Canadian passport. He became Lord Black of Crossharbour and along with his wife, Barbara Amiel, the two became fixtures on the London social scene— but not for long.
The lord now sits in a Florida jail. The early years of the new century proved his downfall, and after a lengthy trial in which he never confessed any guilt, he was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars for fraud and obstruction of justice in the operations of his own company, Hollinger International. There are occasional suggestions in London that he will lose his peerage over the conviction.
In a delicious irony, for Jean Chrétien at least, the former prime minister now enjoys membership in an even more exclusive London-based club than Black's House of Lords. In the summer of 2009, the Queen appointed Chrétien to the Order of Merit, only the third Canadian in history to be so honoured. No one dredged up the Nickle Resolution debate when it happened, even though Chrétien will now be one of only twenty-four members worldwide, including Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela, who can have the letters O.M. follow their name.
From the robes of wealth and power to a prison jumpsuit. Conrad Black is said to be writing the latest instalment of his memoirs while he is incarcerated. I know I'll be buying it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Peter Mansbridge One on One by Peter Mansbridge. Copyright © 2009 by Peter Mansbridge. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.