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01.05.09

Bring It On, Michael Wolff!

Press baron and Rupert frenemy Conrad Black responds to Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff’s attacks.

Many thanks to Michael Wolff for his non-defense defense of his book about Rupert Murdoch against my review of it on The Daily Beast. I pointed out as many errors, inanities, and outbursts of implausible mind-reading as I could fit into a 900-word piece, in approximate order of their absurdity, and effectively declassified the book as a work of nonfiction. The usual recourse of writers caught in the dissemination of such pelagic incontinences of drivel as Wolff is to pretend to ignore the review. As I hoped and expected, he could not do that and responded without a word of demurral or argument on the merits.

Instead, this syntactically challenged, scatologically obsessed myth-maker swaddled himself in Victorian bourgeois priggishness and wrote that the fact that I am a convicted criminal (proudly) serving my (unjust) sentence in a US prison deprives me of any right to criticize him. Further, I am mad “in squalor [and] constantly mocked;" am illustrative of the worthlessness of the Internet (his chosen medium of reply), and have formed a triangle of Internet evil with Tina Brown and Eliot Spitzer.

If Wolff aspires to write history, he will have to do better than flimsy, boring, false potboilers. Even Murdoch deserves better than that.

Please keep in mind, as it is easy to forget, that Wolff is accusing me of being insane. Isn't this the point where gentle, white-clad bearers of butterfly nets are supposed to appear to conduct the Wolffs of the world to a nice, quiet place where they can exchange with each other coarse, verb-less sentences filled with fantasies and inexistent French phrases, in between sessions of heavy medication and gentle counseling?

His proof of my madness is that I believe I won the London broadsheet newspaper price and circulation war conducted against me by Murdoch from 1993 to 1997. Wolff parrots the Murdoch catechism that Rupert thrashed me in that war, causing me to rob my shareholders to sustain the cash flow that supported my luxurious life. (Anyone curious about the price war should note that Murdoch started it and deescalated it after losing hundreds of millions of dollars. We emerged as the market leader and went on to the greatest profitability in our history.) This is the rigor of Wolff's defense of his work: nolo contendere, and the accuser is a temporary resident of a prison.

I was initially accused of "a $500 million corporate kleptocracy," and at this point, as appeals continue, have been mistakenly found guilty of under-documented receipt of three-fifths of one percent of that amount, and acquitted of or not charged with all the rest. All of this could be established from primary sources in one hour of any business day, but that was an Everest of research that daunted investigative journalist Wolff.

And all of this is scarcely relevant to my review of his book, but it enables me to address what has become the real point of this exchange. It has undoubtedly been a challenge to go from 16 years as chairman of The Daily Telegraph (and I sincerely thank Wolff for quoting Murdoch's generous comments on my tenure there) and other fine newspapers, to prison. But imprisonment becomes a useful tool both to enhance credibility in arguing the case for vitally needed reforms and to understand the full consequence of what happens to those who are innocent and those whose punishment far exceeds their crime. This prison is strict and Spartan, as prisons generally should be, but not oppressive, dangerous, or even uninteresting. I am enjoying teaching English composition and US history, often to educationally disadvantaged fellow prisoners seeking to matriculate from secondary school. It is an honor, though of course an unsought one, to be even a small agent of reform of the US justice system.

This larger context vastly eludes the comprehension of a self-important gossip like Wolff, floundering around the watering holes of Manhattan, dragging his literary pretentions behind him like a ball and chain. Naturally, I would rather not be in prison. But in these circumstances, I am delighted. As Thoreau wrote (and as I quoted publicly on the day I surrendered), in a society that routinely imprisons large numbers of innocent people, prison is where the innocent man belongs. Far from hiding the fact, as Wolff alleged, I repeat that I am content—as long as my confinement is not overly prolonged—and in fact very proud to be in a US prison sharing the fate of hundreds of thousands of other wrongfully convicted or grossly over-sentenced people, and to be surviving it quite well. Only separation from my magnificent wife is intolerable.

If Michael Wolff chooses, even at this late stage, to try to defend his book instead of trumpeting the affected snobberies of a Park Avenue dowager about my current residential arrangements, it will be my pleasure to expose his book once again as the farrago of poorly written nonsense that it is. If Wolff aspires to write history, he will have to do better than flimsy, boring, false potboilers. Even Murdoch deserves better than that.

Make my day, Mr. Wolff, and try to reply: You are enriching American prison life.

Conrad Black is the author of biographies of Maurice Duplessis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard M. Nixon, was the publisher of the London Telegraph newspapers and Spectator, and founded the National Post of Canada. He has been a life peer in the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour since 2001.