The Australian

By James Jeffrey

When you're moderating a panel that has Conrad Black on it, one approach is to get the jail stuff out of the way quickly. The Atlantic's James Fallows did precisely that at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday, telling the audience gathered for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas session that the author, columnist and media baron had previously experienced "problems with the US legal system" that had made him a good source of "inside accounts of the US penal system".

This was greeted as enthusiastically as you'd expect in a city that started out as a convict dumping ground. With that bit of crowd-disarming done, it was time to proceed. Fellow panellists Annabel Crabb and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson had plenty to say themselves, but it was the topic of the US legal system — accessed via a question about freshly minted Muscovite Edward Snowden — that coalesced things, all the beams of Black's anger and indignation coming together like the beams of the Death Star laser and sweeping everything before it. Albeit a polished, patrician sort of blast, the sort of Death Star that would vaporise a planet and leave nothing but a puff of cigar smoke.

Two shades of Black

SO by the time yesterday's lunch session of the Public Knowledge Forum rolled around, there was no need for the full CV and the once barred bard was able to just get on with it. Describing himself as "pro-American" despite everything, Black said the US had become "an absolutely silly country" and its judicial system "an utter disgrace", not least the "Supreme Court sitting there generation after generation, drinking its own bathwater". Russia, by way of contrast, was a "thugdom" . And while his fellow speaker, Bob Carr, described Fox News as "a laboratory experiment to render the Republicans unelectable", Black saw it as "a textbook example of how to make $800 million a year out of news coverage". The only time fireworks seemed likely was when Carr got stuck into George W. Bush's presidency. After all, it was during the twilight of that administration that Black wrote in the National Post: "A cataract of sniggering and brickbats may safely be expected as serious analysis of the presidency of George W. Bush begins, but it will not last: The historical standing of departing presidents tends to rise as emotionalism subsides." Bush, he concluded , "will ultimately be seen as a rather successful president." So one might have expected a solid riposte to Carr's Dubya-bashing. And there was, just not how one might have imagined. "Bob," began Black, "I will not be portrayed as an apologist for George W. Bush. I think he was a bonehead."

Icebreaker Bob

This isn't a segue from "bonehead", but let's touch on the response from Carr — self-described former "modest Australian foreign minister" — to a mention of one of his own missteps. We refer to the time he spoke with US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney — someone Carr once described as "bloodless" — and shared his opinion that "America is one budget deal away from banishing talk of American decline". Romney went on to use this in political combat against Barack Obama. Asked about it by moderator Tom Switzer, Carr described the fateful line as, and we quote, "A polite thing to say to keep a conversation going." Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Bob Carr.

No blue healer

Alas, one no-show at the Opera House lunch yesterday was Malcolm Turnbull, his name tag adorning an otherwise empty setting at the table next to Black. We regretted this partly because Turnbull always adds a certain zip* to a room, but mainly because we had, in a short-lived maturity deficit, been looking forward to the slight frisson of seeing him at arm's length from Switzer. It was, after all, Switzer (as editor of The Spectator Australia) who greeted Turnbull's (prematurely announced) retirement from politics in 2010 with the headline, "Good riddance". And another time for variety's sake: "The Coalition mainstream has come to see (Turnbull) as vain, irrelevant, opportunistic and a walking affront to all they believe in." Time, they say, is a great healer, but this may be a blue beyond even its capacity. (*Not in a Kevin Rudd sense, it should go without saying.)

This article was originally published at

Tuesday 5 November:

Amid the excitement of Conrad Black and Bob Carr speaking with the US Studies Centre’s Tom Switzer at the Public Knowledge Forum (Strewth, yesterday), we described Malcolm Turnbull as a ‘‘no show’’. A more accurate description would have been ‘‘regrettably but necessarily absent’’. Turnbull, we are informed, was not there as he was at a cabinet meeting in Canberra and it was in fact USSC board deputy chairwoman Lucy Turnbull who was meant to be on deck but was unwell and out of action. While one is often advised against mixing one’s drinks, mixing Turnbulls is really not much better. Either way, you will, like Strewth, feel filled with regret.

Originally published at The Australian