Now he's gone too far

Murdoch's ugly, no-holds-barred profiteering has become a sick joke. Henry Porter's had enough
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ONE supposes that the penny will eventually drop with the distinguished men and women who write for Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, but there's no sign yet that any of them is remotely concerned by his attempt to kill off and discredit Chris Patten's memoirs of his time as Governor of Hong Kong.

William Rees-Mogg, Simon Jenkins, Ferdinand Mount and Andrew Roberts, to name just four authors that regularly appear in the Times and Sunday Times, have not written a word about one of the most shameful acts of suppression in recent publishing history. They may satisfy themselves that it is not their business to comment on the disputes that break out in Murdoch's empire, but I have news for them. This is not just a publishing row that will be forgotten by the end of the week: it is an attack on free speech and it has grave implications for their continuing association with the Murdoch titles.

Now that they know beyond doubt that HarperCollins's publisher was told to lie about the book to save Mr Murdoch's business interests in China while eager juniors were instructed to rubbish Mr Patten's efforts, they face a difficult decision. They can ignore the outrage done to the former governor and so be tainted by Murdoch's corporate dishonesty; or they can choose to disassociate themselves from this seedy action and retain their credibility.

One wonders how each of them will react over the next few weeks, for it is an extremely unsettling position for these writers, whose lives are spent advising and discoursing on the dilemmas of others but who never actually have to make a choice themselves. Well, now they have one.

In the meantime we can reflect on the larger implications of this scandal. The truly surprising part is the clarity and detail of the plot to undermine Chris Patten. The audit trail, which leads from Rupert Murdoch through Anthea Disney in New York down to the fumbling minions of HarperCollins in London, could not be more sharply defined. It is a measure of Murdoch's power and his vast arrogance that he was able to calculate that it would be better to allow the bad publicity in Britain - inevitable once Stuart Proffitt was suspended - than to offend the despots of Peking.

That is global thinking for you. Murdoch makes those decisions every day, weighing interests in different parts of world, shafting some poor blighter in one country in order to curry favour with another. It is second nature to him and undoubtedly the reason for his success as a world figure.

But the mistake is to think of Murdoch simply in business terms. Most of his biographers are so transfixed by the charm, skill and daring displayed in his dealings that they fail to make crucial moral judgements about his products. A media baron is not just businessman; he is a retailer of information, an enabler of free speech and an upholder of rights. He has a vital role to play in a democracy, for without accurate and balanced information the processes of choice and election wither away.

So the media baron's product is wholly different from the products sold worldwide by Sony or the Ford Motor Company, for example. It has intellectual and moral purposes which we all have a stake in, irrespective of whether we buy the Times, subscribe to Sky TV, own shares in News Corp or do none of these things, but watch with despair at his increasing influence.

One can imagine the sardonic sneer this will provoke in Mr Murdoch but that's no reason to shrink from making the proper charges against him. He has been charming and bullying our politicians for far too long. We should wake up and understand one thing about him: he is not remotely interested in this country. He cares not the slightest for its institutions, nor for the health of its politics, nor for the rights of the one of the oldest democracies in the world. As far he's concerned, we're a profitable little territory with lenient tax authorities and politicians that will dance on hot coals for his support.

We are all used to press barons throwing their weight around. Lord Beaverbrook manipulated the news in his Express group to fix things the way he wanted them. In many ways was he was a corrupt man, but at least he did not barter the freedoms of one country to protect his commercial interests in another. You didn't catch Beaverbrook suppressing AJP Taylor's modern history in order to please Stalin. That is what Mr Murdoch is guilty of and he is able to make these decisions because he is an entirely different order of menace to Beaverbrook.

In the past 10 years he has come to occupy a position where beliefs and morality are inconvenient, something of an irony for a man who was once despised by liberals for his conservative views and quasi-religious Calvinism. In the end his ambition - no, let's use the correct word, his megalomania - has ditched it all, even the Australian passport that was worn like a chip on the shoulder. Now the Reagan-loving anti-Communist is blowing kisses at the nastiest Communist regime left in the world.

Once you understand that, you know there is literally nothing this man wouldn't do to further his interests. When a book touches on the appalling human-rights record in China and the double dealing of its leadership (happily we're allowed to use such phrases in this newspaper) it is dumped; when an editor (Andrew Neil) exposes the arms and aid deal surrounding the Pergau dam project in Malaysia, he is dumped. When a man refuses to lie on Rupert's behalf, he is dumped.

This, in short, is the monstrously amoral force that the present government has embraced. Alastair Campbell arranged the deal; Tony Blair confirmed it during the intermission of some corporate orgy in Australia; and Peter Mandelson refreshes it regularly with tips, flattery and briefings. One day when this government emerges from its puberty it will wise up and begin to consider ways of controlling the monster. For they know in their hearts that Murdoch's influence is becoming an issue that can't be ignored - simply on grounds of political health.

The beauty of the Patten affair is that it describes for us in the paper trail of memoranda not only the priorities that exist in Mr Murdoch's companies, but also the loss of individual standards of moral behaviour. Had it not been for the publisher Stuart Proffitt's lone battle for Chris Patten's East and West, which ended in his suspension, we might never have heard the facts behind Harper Collins's decision to "relinquish rights". The record would have consisted entirely of a nasty little item in the Mail on Sunday which intimated that Mr Patten wasn't up to scratch. Thank goodness that lie has been put to rest. And thank goodness Mr Proffitt really understood the principles at stake.

I suspect that HarperCollins's reputation has been irreversibly damaged by this episode, perhaps even to the point where Mr Murdoch decides that it isn't worth the effort and dumps it along with the other inconveniences in his life. But the bigger point is that the Patten affair presents us with an exact model of the way Mr Murdoch runs his newspapers. In this instance there was a stack of memos and a man of principle to bear witness, but in newspapers decisions are taken at far greater speed and there's rarely any trace of Mr Murdoch's intervention.

This is important because he is doing his best to reduce the competition to his newspapers by subsidising one end of his business with income derived from a more successful sector. He likes to think that in five years' time only the Times, the Sun and the Daily Mail will have survived, and if he is allowed to continue unfairly cutting his cover prices, he may even achieve the reduction he desires. Apart from restricting choice in the market place, the pricing strategy will make it less and less easy for politicians to stand up to him.

I'm sure they will eventually understand that he has to be controlled. Yet my real optimism stems from the increasingly haggard features of Keith Rupert Murdoch and also the rules governing the life cycle of empires. The strain on the lines of communication in an enterprise such as News Corp increases in direct proportion to its rate of expansion. The lesson from this affair is that there was a communications cock-up, which is rather encouraging.

It is now time to hit Mr Murdoch with a serious look at the cross-ownership of media, his use of cross-subsidies, his avoidance of tax and an inquiry into the ethics that are currently alive in his newspapers.

Meanwhile William, Simon, Ferdy, Andrew and all the others are assured of a warm welcome in the outside world where they will find they can be rude as they like about the Chinese leadership and still earn a decent living.