Conrad Black speaks up for old rival Richard Desmond

Former Daily Telegraph owner Conrad Black gave evidence in support of former business rival Richard Desmond yesterday – despite being incarcerated in a Florida prison.

The one-time chief executive of Hollinger International “can’t be with us”, Mr Justice Eady told the jury hearing Desmond’s libel action against writer Tom Bower at London’s high court.

He said Desmond’s counsel, Ian Winter QC, would read out a witness statement supplied by Black, who is serving six-and-a-half years in the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex for fraud and obstruction of justice.

Desmond is suing over claims in a 2006 biography, Conrad And Lady Black: Dancing On The Edge, that he had abused his position to pursue a personal campaign against Black in the wake of a dispute over the West Ferry printing plant in London and was then forced into a humiliating climbdown during a 2003 libel mediation.

Winter has branded the allegations as “highly defamatory and wholly false”. Bower denies libel and says what he wrote was substantially true and was not, in any event, defamatory.

Black, whom Desmond revealed he had tried unsuccessfully to visit last Thursday, said it was not his impression that Desmond had any desire for revenge against him after the West Ferry litigation.

He said they had tried to make the joint venture work as well as possible in everyone’s interests and had worked together at arms-length with some friction but always with the civility of two newspaper owners who shared a plant.

Black recalled the “personal and warm” correspondence between them. He said he remembered the mediation meeting well and that he and Desmond were “perfectly cordial” with each other.

“Contrary to what is asserted by Tom Bower, we had a very civilised discussion,” Black said in his witness statement.

He said that by the end of the meeting, he and Desmond had reached a “very reasonable commercial settlement” and “no unpleasantness occurred between Richard Desmond and me”.

Giving evidence for Bower, journalism lecturer Roy Greenslade was asked by Ronald Thwaites QC for his assessment of Desmond’s reputation as a proprietor.

Greenslade said: “It is, I think, extremely bad, both with journalists and with other proprietors and with managers of other newspapers – probably, in my view, the worst reputation of any proprietor since the Second World War.”

He agreed with Thwaites that Desmond had a bad reputation for editorial interference and for using his papers to further his own personal agenda – in particular to damage and discredit those to whom he was hostile.

Cross-examining, Winter said Greenslade would not begin to claim he was remotely objective. But Greenslade said he was a wholly objective and unbiased observer.

Winter said: “Robert Maxwell was a proprietor of a newspaper and you have described him as a thief, a bully, a confidence trickster and quite possibly a psychopath, and he was responsible for one of the biggest frauds in British history.

“Do you think Mr Desmond has a worse reputation than Robert Maxwell?”

Greenslade said: “You are talking here about what was thought about Maxwell after his death. I am talking about the contemporaneous view of Richard Desmond.”

He went on to strongly deny Winter’s suggestion that he was “sacked” by the Express group and said he gave in his notice because he had been given a position on another paper.

The hearing continues today.

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