The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media

By Anne Davies

When he graced Australian shores in the 1990s, the larger than life media mogul Conrad Black was crossing swords with that ''coarse autodidact'', former prime minister Paul Keating over foreign ownership and journalists at his Australian outpost, Fairfax, over editorial independence.

But during this visit to Sydney Lord Black of Crossharbour — a title bestowed by the Queen in 2001 — was more interested talking about American foreign policy and politics, the subject of his latest book and his area of interest since he was released from a Florida jail last May after serving 3½ years for mail fraud and obstruction of justice.

Even though he has taken something of a tumble and is banned from visiting the US for 30 years, Black has written a series of books on Richard Nixon, foreign policy and a memoir of his time in the slammer.

Speaking at the Public Knowledge Forum, hosted at the Opera House by Sydney University's US Studies Centre, Lord Black shared the stage with the recently retired Labor foreign minister Bob Carr, another man with a passion for American politics and history and an extravagant turn of phrase or two.

Although he was not a ''declinist,'' Lord Black declared the US had ''collapsed like a souffle''.

''It has suddenly become a very silly country. For those of us in Canada who have lived in the shadow of this mighty force, it is absolutely astonishing,'' he said.

''It has an incoherent foreign policy, it had a collective debt of $US10 trillion for 232 years and in 4½ years later it's gone to $17.5 trillion,'' he said.

There were a few areas of agreement between the two men. Surprisingly, Lord Black was critical of the US health system, noting that it was excellent for 70 per cent of the population, but poor for the remaining 30 per cent, which meant 100 million people. '' I am no socialist but it just won't do in a rich country,'' he said.

Sometimes they disagreed, though not strenuously.

Mr Carr was supportive of the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis; Lord Black thought Obama had let his diplomacy be hijacked by ''Russian thugdom.''

''Which is better, Conrad? '' said Mr Carr. ''The adventurism of the George Bush approach or that of the Obama administration.''

''Bob, I will not be portrayed as an apologist for George Bush. I think he was a bone head,'' Lord Black retorted. But it was the US justice system that got Lord Black most steamed up. ''The justice system, which is close to the moral heart of a country, is an utter disgrace: A 99 per cent conviction rate, terribly severe sentences, a semi-privatised prison system that is totally corrupt, and 98 per cent of cases settled without trial because of the plea bargain system.''

The only subject that Lord Black seemed not to hold a strong opinion about was was the impact of Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels on newspapers. ''I don't do any of those things, so I am not the best person to ask,'' he said. Brandishing his mobile phone he declared that newspapers would live on because ''no one would want to read their newspaper on this.''

Mr Carr also surprised by declaring himself a fan of sorts of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel. But it is not for the normal reasons that a person might support the predominantly right-leaning US news cable channel.

''I am delighted because it is a text book experiment in how to make the Republican Party unelectable,'' Mr Carr said.

By the time the candidates had finished pandering to the table thumpers at Fox News, they were too right wing to be elected by a majority of Americans, he said. ''I think it's delightful.''

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media