The bully boy who's never really changed

The shoddy saga at HarperCollins shouldn't surprise us. Murdoch has been breaking his word about editorial control for years
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LAST week the Mail on Sunday carried a bitchy item about Chris Patten's memoir of his Governorship of Hong Kong. It revealed the book was to be dumped by Patten's publishers, and added: "With matchsticks propping up their drooping eyelids, editors at top publishers HarperCollins realised the flat turgid tome was beyond salvation."

That was a lie, and today's Mail on Sunday carries an apology to Mr Patten. The truth is that Stuart Proffitt, Patten's editor, told colleagues that the first two-thirds of the book was "the most lucid, best written and compelling book I have read by a politician since I came into publishing".

By the time the article appeared, Mr Proffitt's opinion was of no interest to HarperCollins. He had been suspended on 9 February, sent home, and told not to engage in any further business. The fact was that Rupert Murdoch, the mogul to whose empire HarperCollins belongs, had instructed Anthea Disney in New York and Eddie Bell in London that the book was not to be published because Mr Patten's views on China offended the chief. Only yesterday did the Times refer to the story: "News Corp puts its side in row over Patten's book" read the headline on page five above a story which repeated a statement made by Mr Murdoch on Friday.

That statement concluded: "As is well known, the editors of News Corporation publications are free to express their opinions." This was not a view shared by lustrous names on HarperCollins's list. By yesterday, the firm's treatment of Mr Proffitt had aroused outrage. Doris Lessing, the novelist, said: It's so shocking I can't find words for it."

Penelope Fitzgerald, novelist: "I'm appalled to think that someone can buy a publishing firm like a soap factory and then scrap the part they don't want."

Peter Hennessey, historian: "HarperCollins has ceased to be part of the open society." Also disgusted are Patrick O'Brian, the historical novelist; Lord Bulloch, the historian; the psychologist Prof Anthony Storr; and literary critic Sir Frank Kermode.

THIS is no storm in a tea cup. Indeed, the Patten affair may be seen as a watershed in Mr Murdoch's commercial history in the UK. He is a man whose biographers have traced a career based on the belief that his commercial interests are paramount, and rules obstructing his business are made to be broken or changed.

His acquisition of HarperCollins is a classic example. Mr Murdoch first took a 41.7 per cent stake in Collins, a reputable Glasgow publisher, in 1981. He had tried to buy the whole company, but the outside shareholders rejected his bid. When the failure of his takeover became clear, Mr Murdoch assured Ian Chapman, the deputy chairman, he did not plan to make a hostile bid and would not seek to dictate policy to the publishing house.

Initially he kept his word, but in 1987 the New York publisher Harper and Row came up for sale. Having bought it, Mr Murdoch sold half to Collins, linking the companies. This increased his thirst for control of Collins, and in 1988 he disregarded his pledge. A hostile bid was mounted for full ownership of the company.

Again, many of Collins's authors expressed their opposition, but the Collins board recommended Mr Murdoch's bid to shareholders after he had persuaded them of his good intentions. Mr Chapman told the New York Times: "We have received assurances we sought regarding Collins's autonomy and editorial freedom." Last week's events demonstrate the true worth of those assurances.

Editorial integrity was never top of Rupert Murdoch's list of priorities. From the start of his long career as a publisher, his business interests have always come first. It is instructive to follow the pattern to its origins because it begins at the beginning, in Australia in 1959 on the Adelaide News, the paper he had inherited from his father and which later gave its name to his News Corporation. A liberal editor, Rohan Rivett, had been campaigning against the conviction of an aborigine, Rupert Max Stuart, for the murder of a nine-year-old girl. Mr Murdoch, who backed the campaign, found that it put him and his paper in bad odour with Adelaide's conservative establishment - and its most prominent advertisers. When Murdoch and Rivett were charged with seditious libel of the judiciary, Mr Murdoch declined to take the stand at the trial. Both were acquitted but five weeks later Rupert Murdoch fired the editor, and his paper was no longer a campaigning one.

By 1972 Mr Murdoch swung his Australian papers behind Gough Whitlam, leader of the Labor party, and helped him win that year's election. By 1975, however, Rupert Murdoch supported the decision by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to dismiss Whitlam, who always believed that Mr Murdoch was acting out of spite because the Government had refused to grant him a licence to develop bauxite in central Australia.

Mr Murdoch's papers switched their support to Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal leader, who duly won. A few years later Mr Fraser amended the Broadcasting Act to ease Rupert Murdoch's path to acquisition of a national TV network.

When he extended his operations to the US, the pattern repeated itself. In the UK, govern- ments of both parties have been anxious to avoid confrontation. The DTI was reluctant to apply rules about newspaper takeovers to Mr Murdoch's acquisition of Times Newspapers, although there was a strong case for doing so. Cross-ownership rules restricting ownership of news- papers and television stations have hardly been applied. There has been no serious questioning of his price war by regulators. But China is a different matter, and that is where Chris Patten comes in.

Mr Murdoch seems obsessed by the possibilities of making money in China. Ever since News Corp secured control of the Hong Kong-based Star TV satellite network in 1993, the company has seen the Asian media market as one of the key areas for expanding its global business, particularly in the media which was relatively new to international players. Star was said to have a potential audience of 3.3 billion people in 53 countries.

The great challenge was to get access to these markets. Before buying Star, Mr Murdoch had been thwarted in an attempt to enter one of Asia's most open media markets, in Hong Kong. He tried to secure a 22 per cent stake in Televisions Broadcasts Ltd. Significantly it was the Patten administration that put the kibosh on this plan.

It was in 1993 that Mr Murdoch revealed his antipathy to Chris Patten. Andrew Neil reports a conversation in which Mr Murdoch said: "It might just be my wallet talking but I think Patten is making a hash of it. He is trying to make a name for himself back in Britain, but he's a lightweight who's screwing everything up."

Mr Murdoch no doubt assumed that Star TV, a satellite, would encounter no such regulatory problems. This has not been the case, partly because of an uncharacteristic mistake by Mr Murdoch in a famous speech in which he declared that advances in communications technology have "proved an unam- biguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere".

CHINA responded by virtually freezing out News Corp. To claw its way back into favour with Peking Mr Murdoch has had to consume vast amounts of humble pie. First he sold off his controlling stake in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post to a tycoon with close Peking connections. Then the BBC international television service was removed from the Star transmissions that are beamed to China to avoid responsibility for news which might upset the authorities.

Next the Murdoch empire eased open the door by sponsoring sports events in China and providing funds for broadcasts of sports programmes. This was followed by a failed attempt to link up with China's Central Television but was rewarded when permission was given for Star's Phoenix Channel to access a cable TV service. Last year Mr Murdoch was able to say publicly that he was "getting a much warmer welcome" in China.

A row with Patten over his views on the Chinese leadership is hardly likely to harm Mr Murdoch's interests. It can be seen as part of his four-year attempt to curry favour in Peking. The irony is that Mr Murdoch has failed to make a penny there and is unlikely to do so for some time.

Mr Neil's autobiography supplies a convincing explanation for Mr Murdoch's behaviour in risking the condemnation of HarperCollins's authors to distance himself from Patten. "He thinks he is wet and bears a grudge against his tough line with Peking which has not been good for Rupert's business in China."

Clearly, Mr Proffitt had not read Mr Neil's book before they made the top bid for Mr Patten's memoir, East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong. They did not consult Mr Murdoch about the editorial decision to offer pounds 125,000 for the rights. Mr Proffitt did nothing when Eddie Bell warned him of Mr Murdoch's displeasure. Clearly he believed Mr Murdoch when he said that he did not intend to interfere in HarperCollins.

Stuart Proffitt ought really to have known better.

Now he's gone too far,

Section 2, page 5

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