Boyd Tonkin: Boris - a dance with dragons?

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The Independent Culture

Until this column raised the topic last week, the back-scratching world of books had blithely refused to air the possible repercussions of the Murdoch débâcle for the publishing arm of News Corp, HarperCollins. As I made clear, HarperCollins in the UK has an admirable record of pluralism over the decade of Victoria Barnsley's leadership, after a period when aspects of its books list did seem to mirror the pro-Conservative bias of all the Murdoch media prior to Tony Blair's advent. Now, to some degree, that cosy omertà has cracked – but in quite the wrong way. The agent Andrew Wylie gave a BBC radio interview on Monday in which he made vague insinuations of "improper" behaviour at HC and scolded its allegedly "shrill and punitive" attitude to authors.

What could he mean? Wylie has certainly clashed with the HC management at times. A year ago, the formidable agent experienced a rare rebuff when the giants ganged up on his attempt to enhance the launch list of his own e-publishing venture, Odyssey Editions. He had planned digital versions of books by his clients, on sale via Amazon and meant to ensure a higher royalty for authors. Barnsley was prominent among Wylie's critics. Odyssey soon ran out of puff. Its website currently features seven titles, with only two of the authors – Louise Erdrich and Oliver Sacks – still alive and able to benefit from the Wylie touch.

Yet, at this supremely volatile moment, HC does need to be above suspicion – visibly free and fair as other Murdoch-owned brands may see value haemorrhage away. After all, we're not talking small change. HC contributes to News Corp sums large enough for even the out-of-touch mogul – whose limitations we saw painfully exposed at Westminster on Tuesday – to notice. Its UK-based division alone had a £243m. turnover, according to the latest figures. Moreover, the synergy between books and other media can add significant value.

This week's sensational fiction bestseller has been A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume of George RR Martin's fantasy sequence - a HC property (see review on p.27). A £25 hardback (though much discounted everywhere), it sold more than 30,000 copies in less than a week. And News Corp's Sky Atlantic has just scored a cult hit with the TV adaptation of Martin's A Game of Thrones. The series was created for HBO but screens as a Sky exclusive in the UK.

Back to reality. In the present climate, I wonder if both parties – author and publisher – should think again about a book announced by HarperPress for release in November. It is Johnson's Life of London. Boris Johnson – both HarperCollins author, and Mayor of London – says that "It has been a real pleasure to chronicle this personal tribute to our great city." No doubt. It has not been a real pleasure to observe the Mayor's buck-passing performance faced with overwhelming evidence of an unhealthy closeness between senior Met officers and journalists at News International. His political capital has tumbled.

Johnson, of course, had previously dismissed the phone-hacking revelations as "codswallop". Throughout this affair he has covered himself with something very different from glory. My attempts to clarify why the Mayor of London should be publishing a book with a News Corp subsidiary in the current circumstances were met with the brush-off from his expensively-staffed press office. They called it merely a matter between author and publisher. As if this title would appear in the HC catalogue at all were it not written by the Mayor.

Johnson (as we know) writes well. I'm sure that many readers will enjoy his London book, above all as it enticingly promises to explore "the cross-currents of influence over the centuries between Westminster and the City, between politicians and wealth creators". I'm equally sure that, given his formal role as Mayor in relation to the top brass of the Met, he should not be taking cash from any part of News Corp now. He could channel all the book's proceeds to charity. Or find a non-Murdoch publisher. Better yet, he could do both.

Fact and fiction at Westminster

After last year's election, this column noted the arrival of three new MPs with records as authors: social historian Tristram Hunt, traveller-diplomat Rory Stewart, and Louise Bagshawe, prolific spinner of exotic, erotic thriller-romances such as Glamour, Passion and Desire. And which one of this trio this week tried to land serious blows on behalf of democracy? Conservative MP for Corby and Northants East, Louise Mensch (right) - her married name - was doing well during Tuesday's interrogation of the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks. Then she slipped up – over a book, as she misread Piers Morgan's memoir The Insider. Maybe that should be shelved as a holiday romance too.

Feral beasts and craven toadies

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1997 to 2007, has a book to plug: the paperback of his self-serving and partisan bid to disguise yet another set of Downing Street memoirs as a work of political philosophy, The New Machiavelli. Hence his recent appearance in opinion columns, not only trashing the felonies of media villains but defending his Master's "feral beast" assault on the press on 12 June 2007. Let me jog your memory of that speech. Blair spent two whole paragraphs attacking just one newspaper by name. Not The News of the World, not The Sun – but The Independent, which had dared to make the right call against his and Powell's Iraq war. In that context it was not a "thoughtful" (Powell) but a disgraceful speech. Meanwhile, the Blair-Powell-Campbell clique went on licking Murdoch's boots, and kept utterly silent on his papers' misdeeds. Our great New Machiavelli showed similarly impeccable taste and judgement when he left No 10. Powell joined investment banker Morgan Stanley as a managing director.

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