Murdoch grovels and pays up in HK book row

RUPERT MURDOCH last night made a grovelling apology to Chris Patten and agreed to pay major compensation to the former governor of Hong Kong for rubbishing the writing skills in his forthcoming book after ordering his underlings at HarperCollins to ditch it.

The Australian-American media mogul is believed to have offered a six figure out-of-court settlement to try to resolve the dispute which has brought one of Britain's most prestigious publishing houses into disrepute and exposed the Times to accusations of self-censorship.

The case was heading towards the High Court when HarperCollins "unreservedly apologised" for, and withdrew, any suggestion that Mr Patten's book East and West was rejected for not being up to proper professional standards or for being "too boring".

The politician's agent, Michael Sissons, said last night that he believed the credibility of current senior management of HarperCollins had been seriously damaged by "a very gross porky and the deafening silence which followed it".

Interviewed at his Oxfordshire home on Channel 4 News, he forecast that Mr Murdoch would be forced to hive off HarperCollins from his global empire. "It is common knowledge now in the industry that there were discussions with other publishing groups last night about the sale of HarperCollins," Mr Simmons said. "I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear those discussions have been resumed."

Mr Murdoch sought to play down the affair last night, stating: "There are no winners and losers in the current controversy. Mistakes have been made and we all share the responsibility."

In a statement issued earlier in the day, when HarperCollins insiders were expecting sackings and resignations, Mr Murdoch praised his London team's "professionalism, experience and determination".

Insiders at the company's offices in the West End said, however, that staff still felt uneasy. Only a day earlier, Anthea Disney, Mr Murdoch's New York-based "corporate assassin", had flown in amid expectations that heads would roll over the handling of his decision to drop Mr Patten's book, because of its criticism of China.

Last night's dramatic cave-in by the News Corporation supremo once again put the editor of the Times, Peter Stothard, embarrassingly on-the-spot. For the second time in a week, he found himself being mercilessly grilled by Channel 4's anchorman Jon Snow about the affair which has made Britain's former paper-of-record an object of ridicule in rival titles.

Mr Stothard admitted that his paper had not covered the Patten affair as well as it should have done, but he claimed that this was only because "the main players were only interested in talking to our competitors ... who want to smear us with anything they possibly can."

He also maintained that the only reason the Times had dropped plans to serialise Mr Patten's book was because of financial constraints. "I only have a limited amount of money," said the editor whose newspaper is regularly almost given away as its proprietor endeavours to dominate the broadsheet market through what his rivals complain is predatory pricing.

East and West will now be published by Macmillan and is bound to have its sales boosted by the publicity. Mr Sissons described this last night as "the silver lining for Chris Patten at the end of what's been an intensely disagreeable episode for all those involved".