Saturday, May 18, 2013

Of Mouse Traps and Public Men

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Conrad Black doesn’t get the big issue in the Wright-Duffy scandal and sees it as a media witch hunt. But I am.  Funny thing that: I used to take some heavy hits for defending Black with my lefty friends at the time of his troubles saying in effect that the case against him was a civil and not a criminal matter, and that the dossier against had a political odour –  in the Chicago of latter days one gets judged (evidently even in criminal matters) on whether one’s ‘values’  are those of the Second City. It is that which decides whether you can open a fried-chicken fast food joint, or whether you spend a few years in the joint.  My big point in Black’s defense was that one cannot apply standards of public conduct to Black merely because he has a public profile. He held no public office (in the US) and had no-one to answer to in financial dealings than to his investors and business partners if these did not involve defrauding public at large.  What he was convicted of might have looked bad but it was not a job for a prosecutor. Surprisingly, given the passions that Conrad Black stirs among complete strangers, I was able to make some headway with people who were able to grasp the issue of the requisites in public versus private conduct. 

Now, it seems Conrad Black himself has some difficulty deciding what is public business and what is not. In today’s National Post (18/5/2013), he calls for the end of harassment of Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy. He writes in operatic strokes of pen that it is an instance of unusual loyalty and generosity to a friend, but is not so unusual that it should be mistaken as a dishonest act between honest men.  Really ?  Is that what that was ?  Or is it just a sigh of Conrad Black realizing there is a Wright missing among his friends ?

 The problem is,  honesty or dishonesty, loyalty, generosity and friendship do not enter into the debate here.  Nigel Wright is a Chief of Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office;  Mike Duffy is a Canadian Senator.  Both are public figures who answer to the public for financial dealings they make in (and out of) their respective office.  If Mr Duffy admits to charging Canadian public for his senatorial expenses improperly and intimates he has repaid the excess claims, it is certainly big news item if it turns out he settled his debt with money that was not his and which he was obligated to declare as a senator.  If Mr Wright sends a cheque to a sitting member of the Senate it raises essentially unanswerable questions of the quid pro quo in the exchange – and again much as I would like to grant that it was an unselfish act of loyalty and friendship – I am not stupid to be put to sleep by self-interested babble even as artful as Conrad Black's.  The fact of the matter is that Mr Wright put himself in a position of conflict of interest and the only honourable recourse open to him is to resign to protect the integrity of the PMO.  Only then the charity to his friends will carry with it no risk of being mistaken for something else. 

So I am disappointed by Conrad Black’s take on this sordid little affair.  Going after the two gentlemen is not a way for ‘great nations’ to destroy ‘their public men with mouse traps ’ as he would have it.  It is simply insisting that public men keep their public nose clean.  I don't think anyone, least of all a journalist, should take an issue with that.

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