Is it an Enron? A Tyco? Or a WorldCom? No it’s a Hollinger (now known as the Sun-Times News Group) corporate-governance show trial and coming to a federal courthouse near you today in beautiful downtown Chicago, Illinois – where the forecast is for a cooler change after three days of unseasonably hot weather.

Hollinger once owned the Chicago Sun-Times which is why the trial is here. Frank Sinatra sang My Kind of Town about the US’s third-largest city. And it certainly seems an excellent place to stage the captivating legal drama known as The United States vs. Conrad Moffat Black et al.

It is traditional for media jackals and snappers to mass at the courthouse front door while the accused talent sneaks-in the side door, and so it was today.

The Black Baron, 62, presented today as a classic film noir protagonist. His wife, the comely Barbara Amiel Black did just swell as the femme fatale. He was wearing a grey suit, blue shirt and grey checkered tie. He is the archetypal-hardboiled media baron with a superiority complex that borders on megalomania; and he is filled with existential bitterness about his presence before these lesser mortals.

Black sat calmly at the defence table listening to the questioning. His wife sat in the first row and took notes in a reporter’s notebook.

After the morning session, they had a brown bag lunch with their lawyers in a witness room adjacent to the courtroom rather than brave a media storm in the downstairs lobby. Today is going to be all that boring legal stuff as Judge Amy (eh sorry, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve) gives the evil eye to dozens of prospective jurors. If it all goes to plan, the judge hopes to have the jury picked by Thursday. So, opening statements are scheduled for Monday. What to do at the weekend?

As well as the Blues, Chicago is famous for its Greens. And Saturday just happens to fall on the Great Saint’s Day. The Chicago St Patrick’s Day parade is famous the world over and is usually held on the Saturday before 17 March. The march starts at midday and travels up Columbus from Balbo to Monroe. Millions will march and watch.

For a special treat, get down to the Chicago River at 10.45am and see the miracle of the “Dyeing of the River.” The city’s Irish plumbers add a secret ingredient to the water, which instantly send it first orange – then a brilliant emerald green. It is the annual battle of good over evil. We hope it is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations that begin on Monday.

Look you, gentle reader, at the prosecutors (see pix) lined up like Quentin Tarantino’s gang on the poster for the neo noir movie Reservoir Dogs (minus the shades). Lead prosecutor Eric Sussman said the four agreed to be photographed as a group to head off constant requests from news outlets during the trial.

“The record in this case will speak for itself that the government has only tried its case in this courtroom and not in the media,” Sussman said.

But media frenzy is such that court officials have already set aside two overflow courtrooms where the proceedings will be shown on closed-circuit television. Canadian TV yesterday began a new program covering legal affairs and the criminal justice system with the Black case as its starting point.

Inside the courtroom battlefield. Peter Worthington of the Winnipeg Sun (Canada) takes us behind the scenes:

I got my courtroom credentials yesterday (big relief), but many didn’t. Too late in applying for accreditation. A check of the courtroom on the 12th floor of the Everett Dirksen building was a shock. Four rows of benches either side, with the right side for potential jurors and government officials; the front row of the left side for the family and friends of those accused, two rows for the non-Chicago media – first come, first seated among those with the precious red cards for courtroom access. One access card for each media outlet registered before 1 March.

The plaintive wails and sobs of media types who registered too late for courtroom access are a boon to the ears of those of us who registered early. So far it’s mostly Canadian and British media who’ve shown interest in the Conrad capers, with American media beginning to be infected with interest because of the international interest. Even though Conrad Black isn’t the household name in Chicago that he is in Canada or Britain, the vindictiveness of the prosecutors, contrasted with the passion shown by Black protesting his innocence, and the anger of the defence attorneys, has journalists salivating.

New court TV show to star Black. Alex Strachan, CanWest News Service, reports:

Canada’s first TV news series devoted to legal affairs and the criminal justice system – The Verdict began yesterday on CTV Newsnet. The Verdict’s debut coincides with the start of Conrad Black’s trial in Chicago on charges of fraud and racketeering. The Verdict will broadcast live from Chicago for the first several days of the Black trial, which is one of the most-anticipated legal battles in recent memory. It promises to provide viewers with an in-depth examination of legal issues and high-profile court cases.

Unruly Canadian journalists start stampede. The Canadian Press (wire) report blames their own:

The crush of media at the Dirksen Federal Court House in downtown Chicago is expected to be so big that officials have added a second overflow room for those who don’t make it into Judge Amy St. Eve’s tiny courtroom, where only four benches have been reserved for reporters. Journalists began filing into the courthouse at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday to get press passes.

Although officials are expecting some members of the public, the trial hasn’t drawn nearly as much attention in America as in Canada and Britain. The Chicago Sun-Times, once part of Black’s media empire, began its coverage Monday but its former boss has yet to make Page 1. Many of the media restrictions in place for Wednesday stem from Black’s last appearance in Chicago, when reporters swarmed the press baron outside the courtroom, knocking (lawyer) Genson down. At the time, Genson told the Sun-Times the stampede was precipitated by unruly Canadian journalists.

A letter from our publisher. John Cruickshank of the Chicago Sun-Times breaks cover:

Today our former CEO goes on trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse for multiple counts of corporate fraud. Conrad Black, who until late 2003 was CEO of the company that operates the Chicago Sun-Times, faces charges, which if proved, could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

Among his chief accusers will be David Radler – who was, until 3½ years ago, publisher of this paper. Mr. Radler has pled guilty to corporate fraud and will likely spend more than two years in prison. Three other executives from Mr. Black’s fallen empire, including Mark Kipnis, the Chicago-based former chief counsel of our company, also face charges. Although Mr. Black was an infrequent visitor and cuts a minor figure in Chicago, he is reckoned a celebrity of sorts in London, New York and Toronto. His trial will be attended by a significant contingent of international media.

The witness list is impressive and guarantees heavy coverage in many media. We may see former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called to testify. Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson will almost certainly appear for the prosecution. These events stir strong feelings in those of us who lived through the trying years of Black’s control at the Sun-Times’ parent company. While our talented staff made valiant efforts to improve the quality of the paper, far too little was done by our parent firm to invest in a unique community enterprise experiencing intense competition in a challenging industry.

Despite feelings of resentment that are still quite inflamed in some quarters, our coverage of Mr. Black’s trial will be founded on the presumption that he and his colleagues are innocent until they are proven guilty. We will cover this trial as we do any other – intelligently, accurately and above all fairly. The interests of our readers in the unbiased and unvarnished truth will be uppermost in our fact gathering and presentation.

But whatever the outcome of this complex proceeding, we at the Sun-Times are focused firmly on the promise of the future, not the shortcomings of the past. Our job is to be Chicago’s best source for news and opinion. For several years now that goal has guided all our investments and commitments. The future of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper and the unique electronic media extensions that are proliferating from it is extremely bright. We want to thank you today for your continued readership and support.

The difference between Canadians and Chicagoans. John Kass, a columnist on the Chicago Tribune had this advice for his readers yesterday:

You’re probably unaware that hordes of Canadians have descended upon Chicago for Wednesday’s opening of the federal fraud trial of Lord Conrad Black, the flamboyant Canadian press baron who once ran the Chicago Sun-Times. And, as a half-Canadian on my mother’s side, with uncles and aunts and cousins from Ontario, I ask you to welcome the plucky Canadians, whom Black once rudely called a herd of “whining, politically conformist welfare addicts.

So I called my mom about her countrymen who live in America’s attic and asked the best way to tell the difference between Canadians and Chicagoans… “They speak English and enunciate properly, which might make it difficult for some people to understand,” said my mother, quite sharply, while reverting to her defensive Canadian mode. “No Canadian could hope to understand a Chicagoan who says: ‘Come by me over by here.’ And Canadians use certain phrases you may find strange, such as ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ and ‘I beg your pardon?

To be sure, I called my Uncle Bill up North, and he too confirmed that Canadians are sticklers when it comes to the pronunciation of English. “Unless they’re from Newfoundland,” he said of the rustic province that I think is on the right side of their map. “You can’t understand the Newfies,” said Uncle Bill. “If they’re desperate to use the facilities, they’ll loudly ask for the ‘terlet, the terlet!’ and no one in Chicago will know what they’re talking about.

There is so much to learn about our Canadian friends. Let’s hope they enjoy themselves, and that Conrad Black entertains them and the rest of us from the witness stand. I think he’ll put on a show.

Schadenfreude all around my lovelies. Stephen Foley in the Indy sinks the slipper:

Lord Black has hit the public relations circuit these past two weeks, making scathing denunciations of his enemies, the “pygmies” of Wall Street, the US prosecutors he says are guilty of a “putsch”, the “braying, hideous, tricoteuses” of the British press. His capacity for righteous indignation has never known any bounds, and he will not miss an opportunity to gild his insults with a few long words or a classical reference. To affect humility now would beggar belief.

Now everybody sing.

Chicago, Chicago – that toddlin’ town, that toddlin’ town
Chicago, Chicago – I’ll show you around – I love it
Betcha bottom dollar you’ll lose your blues
In Chicago, Chicago
The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down

On State Street, that great street
I just want to stay, I just want to stay
They do things they don’t do on Broadway, say
They have the time, the time of their life
I saw a man who danced with his wife
In Chicago … Chicago … Chicago, Chicago

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey