Lonely Black looks in vain for friends in need
By Andrew Pierce
WHEN Conrad Black was one of the world’s most powerful newspaper barons, he was often surrounded by fawning world leaders, businessmen and power brokers.
Now, as he faces the ignominious prospect of up to 40 years in prison for alleged grand fraud, Lord Black of Crossharbour and his wife Barbara Amiel have discovered that the friendships were paper-thin.
The invitations have dried up, as have the telephone calls to his home in Toronto where he is co-ordinating his legal defence against the way he ran Hollinger International, the company that owned The Daily Telegraph. He refused to set foot outside his home yesterday. He has been told to appear before a US federal court in Chicago on Tuesday, with a warrant issued for his arrest.
Some of his former associates expressed incredulity yesterday that Lord Black, 61, is still in denial over the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. Even as his legal costs rise, Lord Black is threatening to sue journalists who write hostile stories and boasting that he is innocent of all charges and one day will rebuild his media empire.
In Britain, many of the people who once happily dined with Lord Black were unwilling to speak up on his behalf yesterday as they digested the eight charges of fraudulently diverting $83.8 million (£48 million) of shareholders’ money with key associates.
Robin Birley, who owns Annabel’s nightclub in London, a favourite haunt of Lord Black, said: “When Conrad was king he had a magnificent court. When the king is deposed the courtiers swiftly seek a new one.”
The guest list at parties at Lord Black’s magnificent £13 million mansion in Kensington used to include the likes of Henry Kissinger and British prime ministers. Mr Birley said: “The hospitality was lavish, rooms crammed full. How many would turn up now? A handful, that’s all. I still feel honoured to be a friend.”
This summer, Lord and Lady Black dined at Kensington Palace with Princess Michael of Kent, who knows all about ostracism. A guest said: “The Princess wanted to show loyalty, which is more than she feels she has been shown by some.”
A Tory peer, who declined to be named, said that Lord Black’s fall from grace was the most spectacular in decades. “It is shocking the way society has brutally turned on him. Conrad and Barbara were the darlings of the party circuit, now they are the pariahs.”
Hollinger International, under Lord Black, sustained a bloated collection of Establishment figures, including Baroness Thatcher, who yesterday rounded on Lord Black’s critics. A spokesman said: “Lady Thatcher has always had a good personal relationship with Conrad Black. She does not cut and run just because someone gets into difficulties. Conrad is innocent until proven guilty. Lady Thatcher will let the courts decide.”
The Blacks were regulars at Harry’s Bar in Mayfair and other select haunts. Lady Annabel Goldsmith entertained them at her house in Richmond. Maurice Saatchi had them to lunch. There has been no contact since then. Lord Black has not been to the House of Lords for a year.
Andrew Roberts, the historian, refused to concede that his friend was finished. “An Englishman does not turn on someone because he may go to prison,” he said. “He has good lawyers. If other board members agreed with these payments it could all be different.”
Andew Neil, chief executive of The Spectator, once part of the Black empire, was one of the last people to dine with him. “The storm clouds were gathering but if you believe what he was saying it has come as a surprise,” he said. “People like him come to believe that they are masters of the Universe, where laws, taxes and rules are for little people and not for them.”
Lord Black has been charged with eight counts of mail and wire fraud