Maclean’s magazine was just getting interesting again… Andrew Potter (my favourite columnist) was on board, Paul Well’s offered fantastic insights on Ottawa, the new format was edgier and the content more interesting. But Mark Steyn’s coverage of the Black Trial, among some of the worst commentary and news reporting in the country, is a significant step backwards.
I don’t mind biased reporting… everyone has a bias. But it is one thing to have a bias such as “I’m skeptical that non-competes should be criminal under any situation” versus “no matter what evidence is presented, Conrad Black is innocent.” If facts aren’t going to influence you, why go to Chicago? Why be in the court room at all? What insightful analysis could you possibly provide?
If I wanted this type of mindless coverage I’d read one of the numerous conservative blogs.
So won’t somebody in the (Canadian) media stand up and call out the obvious? Mark Steyn is clearly more worried about losing a good reference letter than he is about providing thoughtful analysis or accurate reporting.
What makes this all the sadder are the ridiculous contortions he gets into when reconciling his coverage with other issues.
There was a great example of this yesterday. A reader asked Steyn if he was concerned about the treatment of all convicts or just prisoner Black. So Steyn – now a convert to justice reform – published a list of changes that would improve the US justice system. Listed below is a sample:
Reform 1) “An end to the near universal reliance on plea bargains, a feature unknown to most other countries in the Common Law tradition. This assures that a convicted man is doubly penalized, first for the crime and second for insisting on his right to trial by jury. The principal casualty of this plea-coppers’ parade is justice itself: for when two men commit the same act but the first is jailed for the rest of his life and dies in prison while the second does six months of golf therapy and community theatre on a British Columbia farm and then resumes his business career, the one thing that can be said with certainty is that such an outcome is unjust.”
If one believes that the justice system is only about punishment then I guess Steyn is right. However, the justice system is also about responsibility, rehabilitation and acknowledgment. It offers some latitude to those who accept personal responsibility for their illegal actions. Black might also have enjoyed a more lenient sentence – if he’d acknowledged his guilt.
Reform 2) “An end to the process advantages American prosecutors have accumulated over the years – such as the ability to seize a defendant’s funds and assets and deprive him of the means to hire good lawyers and rebut the charges.”
Ah yes, it was so sad to see Conrad Black – striped of his assets – rely on a public attorney provided by the court. If only he could have afforded Toronto and Chicago’s most elite, prestigious and expensive defense attorneys. If he had, things almost certainly would have gone differently.
Steyn’s clearly not a fan of Black’s defense team. But does he really believe that Black’s case was damaged by his inability to hire one of the most expensive defense teams in North America?
Reform 3) “An end to countless counts. In this case, Conrad Black was charged originally with 14 crimes. That tends, through sheer weight of numbers, to favour a conviction on some counts and acquittal on others as being a kind of “moderate” “considered” “judicious” “compromise” that reasonable persons can all agree on. In other words, piling up the counts hands a huge advantage to the government. In this case, one of the 14 counts was dropped halfway through the trial, and another nine the jury acquitted Conrad on. But the four of the original 14 on which he was convicted are enough. One alone would be sufficient to ruin his life. This is the very definition of prosecutorial excess. Why not bring 20 charges or 30 or 45? After all, the odds of being acquitted of all 45 are much lower than those of being acquitted of 30 or 40.”
Maybe because there were 14 charges worth prosecuting? Either you believe in a jury’s capacity to discern the truth or you don’t. If you don’t trust juries, don’t limit the prosecution, eliminate the jury. Besides, the analysis isn’t even sound. I’ve seen court reporters discuss the opposite effect, about how frivolous charges can taint the credibility of all the counts and so increase the odds of a complete acquittal. But maybe we should cap the number of charges a prosecutor can lay… Of course, by Steyn’s logic this would mean limiting the Picton trial prosecutors to laying charges on 1 or 2 murders since 7 would unfairly weigh the process in favour of the prosecution.
So what’s Steyn’s conclusion?
“Conrad Black would have benefited from the above changes, but so would a lot of nickel’n’dime stumped-tooth losers with tattoos – which is as it should be: Justice is supposed to be blind. But this system is blind drunk on its own power.”
Why? Because according to Steyn’s column and blog, everybody is at fault: the courts, Black’s lawyers, Black’s business partners, the jury, the press, pretty much everyone except Black. In short Black has to be innocent. Consequently some narrative, any narrative, even one that must awkwardly describe a perfect storm of how all the above actors conspiring to bring Black down, must be constructed. Of course, for such a storm to exist the failure of the system must be dramatic, and clearly reform – even radical reform – must be necessary. Hence, the contortions.
It’s a good thing Steyn was in Chicago, providing us with another account of how the system keeps the wealthy, aristocratic white men down. He truly is a modern day Charles Russell.