A Conversation with Peter Newman (Part 2)

What follows is the second part of my conversation with Peter C. Newman—whose story on the trial, A Great Fall,” is in the current issue of Toronto Life—regarding his reflections on Conrad Black, the trial and its aftermath.

Watching Black in the course of the trial, did you get a sense of how he was understanding what he was seeing?

Well, I’ve done a lot of observing of these guys, because my whole career has been based on identifying, reconstructing Canadian establishment, and the thing about him was that he was the master of self-destruction. Here he is, on trial for his life you could say, because if he goes to jail it is his life, and as soon as he gets out of the courtroom, almost every recess, he’s going on about the goddamn Nazis prosecuting him. He’s saying stuff that’s going to help destroy him. And what the judge is looking for is remorse. And there wasn’t a touch of remorse; he doesn’t know the word, doesn’t know the feeling.

It was interesting to me how, at the end of the trial, when he was finally confronted by the fact that he was found guilty, there was a moment when I sensed he realized the gravity of the situation. But it seemed like he was almost confused by it. He sat with his head drooping, while the two women in his life, his daughter and Barbara, hovered over him. What do you think he realized in that moment?

There are so many ironies in this situation. And one of them is that he believed more in American justice than in Canadian justice. He and Greenspan could have manoeuvred things had he been charged and tried here in Canada, which would have been much better for him. But he has a thing about the U.S.; it’s his utopia. He’s always writing about why Canadians aren’t as this or that as Americans and wouldn’t it be nice if they were. Well, it isn’t nice. He realized that it’s a tough game down there.

So it’s a disillusioning of his beliefs—his idealism about America.

I read both his books, and it’s amazing how well he knows American politics. Especially Nixon. What he should have learned from Nixon is not that Nixon was innocent or guilty, but that what got Nixon was the same thing that got him: the cover-up. And when Conrad started to cover up what was really going on, if he had paid that first $7.1 million, it would have all gone away. It is a tragedy in a very real sense. Because the potential of that man, with that mind, those contacts, all the things that he had, to waste that on jets and mansions…

Through her life, Barbara Amiel has had second, third, fourth, fifth acts. What’s the next act for Amiel? She’s married to Conrad, but he’s going to be incarcerated. How is she going to conduct herself? What kind of life is she going to have?

It’s funny. I had word, through Tom Bower, that she was going to be in London last week looking for new digs, and in an e-mail to somebody I misspelled it “gigs,” and I thought, well, both maybe.

But seriously, what might she get up to? What could she do?

She’ll have another life; she’s got at least one more in her. And who’s to say that’s wrong. She’s a very lively woman, and she’s got talent; she worked for me for eight years, and while I didn’t always appreciate her attitude, I certainly appreciated her talent. It’s real. She’s smart, she’s a good writer. She will first of all produce an autobiography, her second volume on these events, which I’m sure will be worth reading. Then she’ll go on to remarry somebody who appreciates her.

How is she going to portray her role in this drama in the course of her autobiography?

You can be sure that she will emerge faultless, and I’m not ducking your question, but I read her first volume. And for example, she has a whole chapter on going to Mozambique and eating her press card. Well, I was the editor in chief of Maclean’s at the time, and I issued press cards. They were made of hard plastic, so if she ate that she wouldn’t have any intestines after. It was a clearly made-up story. So she manipulates facts and she will again. But I can’t guess in detail what she’ll say. But she’ll be the heroine.

How do you see the minor players in this, Kipnis, Atkinson and Boultbee. What sort of part did each of them play in Black’s downfall, and has justice been served?

Well, you can’t take them as a group. Kipnis clearly was not guilty of anything. Lawyers work for the people who hire them. That’s the way it is, and it doesn’t mean they agree with every murderer or serial killer. But it’s their job to defend, it’s their job to do what they’re told. One thing that surprised me was that the jury said he was as guilty as the other two. Boultbee is very tough, never said a word to anyone. He was the closest to Conrad; he was the guy who encouraged this whole scheme. He was very much a part of it. Atkinson was just being a good soldier, and as far as Atkinson was concerned, all he was getting was an annual bonus, the way he’d always got it. But because it was a non-compete, it was a bonus that was tax free. So he took it. Was it wise? Of course not. But that’s in retrospect. At the time, he’d always got a bonus and now he got it tax free. I think the prosecution made a big mistake. They could have turned Kipnis and Atkinson, and they would have had a lot more inside information. And the mistake they made was not offering them freedom from a sentence. I think they both would have turned and they would have had a much stronger case.

To me, the drama is divided into two parts. It is just, in my mind, that these guys were tried and convicted. Even Kipnis, I think, turned a blind eye. But don’t you find this idea of American justice problematic? That white-collar criminals deserve to do time because they’re criminals like everybody else, and if they break the law they mustn’t be treated any differently. It seems to me almost like the Mayan sacrifices. The great god of the market has been angered, so we must sacrifice.

Well, look, it’s a capitalist society, based on the profit motive, based on the notion that you become rich and famous, that this is a good thing, everybody wants to be rich, but there has to be a level playing field and the people who cheat and make that playing field too risky or too dangerous by not obeying by the rules have to be punished. Because otherwise, the capitalist society will not perpetuate itself. And there’s an element of truth in that. I’ve read some of their prayers, in Texas where they pray to get bigger profits. This is not a secular thing. So the justice system is defending capitalism as a religion.

Let’s talk about the defence attorneys. How do you rate Eddie Greenspan’s performance?

There were two kinds of performances. The performance in that last appeal to the jury was very good. That was a masterful summation of the case. He worked on their emotions, and I don’t know that he succeeded, but he was worth listening to. On the other hand, the Radler performance, I thought that was pretty awful. It was like a Soviet show trial, where he wanted the defendant to admit to something that he’d already admitted to, which was, in Radler’s case, that he was a liar. It got silly, counterproductive.

Looking back at Black’s career overall, having watched him in the various stages of his career, what was the highlight? When was Conrad closest to his perception of himself?

That was the 120 days when he took over Argus. That was an amazing performance; that’s where he used his military strategy to his credit. And it worked. If you read that chapter of The Establishment Man, you see that every base was covered, secret meetings at midnight at graveyards and stuff plotted by him and his brother. It was Conrad at his best, or if you like, worst, but certainly in terms of effectiveness, at his best.

Read part one of this conversation


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