Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"Unjustly incarcerated": Conrad Black, ethics, and the media

So with Conrad Black spending his first day behind bars as federal prisoner 18330-424, the issue of the ethics of senior executives is once more back in the headlines. Well, OK, in this case, its more than just about ethics - clearly we have a case that is as much about breaking the law as it is getting entangled in ethical gray areas. For all the complexities of this case, fraud of $6 million is, well ... just plain illegal. But with Black himself continuing to claim to be the slighted one, making all kinds of accusations about the integrity of, among others, dissident shareholders, a special committee set up at Hollinger to investigate the case, the media, US prosecutors, and even the trial jury for "compromising" in reaching its verdict, ethics have never been far from the surface of this one.

Not that we are going to enter the fray arguing about who did what and who was to blame for the whole Hollinger fiasco. Clearly a whole lot of value got leached out of the company one way or another. Some of it through poor management, some bad luck, and, as the courts have made clear, some through fraud. Whichever way you look at it, the situation doesn't look good for anyone much.

For us though, especially being relatively new to Canada, one of the most interesting aspects of the case has been the media reaction to it here in the former press baron's country of birth. Black is certainly a larger than life character, and the media here in Canada, as in the UK and the US, eagerly covered every detail of the case, and especially reports of his supposedly lavish lifestyle. Now that Black's six and a half year sentence has started, his fall from grace is back in the news. Prominent among the broadsheets covering Blacks last moments of freedom was his former title, The National Post, where he made front page headlines again yesterday.

As it goes, actually, he got more than just front page news. In addition to the interview with him on the front page, the whole of page 6 was turned over to a Conrad Black penned comment section headlined 'Unjustly incarcerated' where he laid out in detail why he was innocent, who was to blame, and what "really" happened at Hollinger. And all without further commentary from the Post's fine reporters.

Now we are all for freedom of the press, freedom of speech to the invidual, and freedom to do a whole lot of other things. But why exactly is a national newspaper giving such unembumbered press space to a convicted felon, and not an inch to any of those that have proven in a court of law why he should be behind bars? Surely the media, even a paper once owned by Black, has some kind of duty to present a more fair and balanced account of such events. Or at least to provide some analysis of the "news", if yet more bombastic denials of his wrongdoing really count as news.

We should be thankful at least though that one item managed to break the Black monopoly. Nestled at the top of the page above Black's trenchant commentary was a sidebar reporting on news that Canadians will at last be able to rate their favourite public washrooms. We're not sure how we all coped before, but even so we're guessing that Black's new home in the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida won't be featuring too high on any national bathroom ratings.

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