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Watching the Watchdog: Conrad Black and the Art of the Interview

10/26/2012 05:30 EDT | Updated 12/26/2012 05:12 EST

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

It's all theatre, of course.

Conrad Black (a.k.a. Baron Black of Crossharbour, Knight of the Holy See, Privy Councillor, Officer of the Order of Canada [OC], and my fellow blogger at HuffPost Canada) was once the world's third biggest newspaper magnate.

Then he lost his newspapers and spent three years in an American prison for fraud and obstruction of justice. During that time he wrote a book, A Matter of Principle.

Now he's in England flogging the book. Highlight so far is his interview on the BBC TV program Newsnight with acerbic host Jeremy Paxman, once voted Britain's fourth scariest TV personality.

Talk about a clash of egos. Alpha bulls pawing the ground. Rampant testosterone. It's an interview for the ages. But don't judge it as anything other than theatre.

And when analyzing it, keep in mind that people like Black always believe attack to be the best form of defense. As a preacher friend once told me after a few glasses of the stuff that cheers: "when you get to the weak part of the sermon, say it loud and fast."

As in any theatre, look for storytelling, strong personalities, wit, emotion, intelligence, dramatic action, characterization, timing and energy. Truth and actually answering the questions asked in interviews, are always options. Desirable, but certainly not mandatory.

Paxman starts the segment with Black's biographer, Tom Bower, who sets the stage with some zingers of his own about his lordship:

"A millionaire with a billionaire's living standard."


"Has always played the victim card in defence of his criminal behaviour."


"Believes he's God and everyone must bow to him."

Then comes the interview.

Here are my edited highlights of the edited Black interview, starting with the first question:

Paxman: (Polite tone. No warm-up question. Jumps straight in. No mention of book) "Do you think prison made you a better person?"

Black: (False modesty. Uses interviewer's name to indicate equality and respect). "Hard for me to say, Jeremy."

Paxman: "But you are a convicted fraudster!"

Black: (Doesn't rise to bait. Instead gives highly questionable answer focusing on details of trial.) "No, I'm not... We got rid of all the counts and we had the prosecuting statute declared unconstitutional."

Paxman: (Spreads hands, looks as if no sane man could deny this.) "It is the opinion of the judge... and you have been convicted..."

Black: (Only slightly irritated) "Will you stop this bourgeois priggishness!"

Paxman: (Pushes harder) "It's not bourgeois priggishness. You're a criminal..."

Black: (Outraged by the word "criminal") "No, I'm not a criminal ..."

Paxman: (Offering a trap) "You just misunderstood what was legal?"

Black: (Avoiding the trap) "Everything I did was legal. I didn't misunderstand any of it. It was a smear job from A to Z."

Paxman: (Being reasonable.) "Then why did you plead guilty?"

Black: (Apparently angry, evades answer) "The whole system is a fraudulent, fascistic conveyer belt of a corrupt prison system." (Throws in statistics about large number of Americans in jail. Ends triumphant) "How do YOU explain that?"

Paxman: (Thrown by Black suddenly becoming interviewer) "I don't think I have to..."

Black: (Triumphant. Smiling) "Give it a try."

Paxman: (Puzzled) "Why?

Black: (Justifies) "Before, you accused me of being a criminal, give it a try..."

Paxman: (Justifies again) "But you're a convicted criminal..."

Black: (Suddenly attacking) "No. You're a fool. You're just a gullible fool. You're a priggish, gullible, British fool who takes seriously this ghastly American justice system that any sane English person knows is an outrage."

In this last sequence, Black has turned the tables, changed from interviewee to interviewer, an old trick and fine theatre. And he's thrown enough insults to get quoted in news reports. In the next part of the interview, the two men discuss Black being Roman Catholic but not penitent about his conviction.

Black: (Patronizes and justifies) You see Jeremy, your problem is you have no idea how that system operates..."

Now comes the highlight.

Paxman: "What astonishes... what will astonish our viewers, I suspect, is that a man who's been through all this should show no humility, no shame."

Black: (In full martyr fury, outraged, voice high, glares at Paxman, seemingly close to losing control.) "Of course not. I've been persecuted half to death. I don't have any shame. I'm proud of what happened. Proud of having been in a U.S. federal prison and survived as well as I did...

"I'm proud of having gone through the terribly difficult process of being falsely charged, falsely convicted and ultimately almost completely vindicated without losing my mind, becoming irrational, ceasing to be a penitent and reasonable person and actually being able to endure a discussion like this without getting up and smashing your face in which is what most people would do if they'd been through what I have been."

Paxman: (Clearly not worried that the threat is anything more than bluster) "Well, go ahead do... do your..."

Black: (Who has just threatened violence) "No, no, no, I don't believe in violence."

And so it went. So what does it all mean? Actually very little.

You should know that there's a simple, unspoken deal involved in interviews at this high level. (Canada has no equivalent to Newsnight since CBC's magnificent This Hour Has Seven Days was killed by the government and Mother Corp 46 years ago.)

Both the players in this sort of interview know the deal. The interviewee wants to sell his book. So the more outrageous he is, the more news stories will be written and the more copies he'll sell. The interviewer, meantime, wants to polish his reputation as the gutsiest, meanest sonofabitch in the valley. So the more outrageous he is, the more news stories will be written and the more viewers he'll get.

For both Black and Paxman this was a love affair consummated in heaven. Before the red light went on, I suspect Baron Black of Crossharbour had adapted Sir Humphrey Appleby's advice about being interviewed in the great Yes, Prime Minister TV satire:

"Go in with something to say and say it -- irrespective of the question. You can always say 'that's not the real question' and then ask the one you want to answer."

Conrad Black Visits The Huffington Post Canada