Murdoch monopoly inquiry demanded

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The Independent Online
A call for a fresh reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission of Rupert Murdoch's ownership of the Times was made last night by Paddy Ashdown over allegations that the media mogul has broken pledges he gave at the time of the takeover by his global company, News Corporation. The Liberal Democrat leader wrote to Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, suggesting recent allegations of Mr Murdoch's influence over the Times's coverage of China to protect his interests in the Star satellite television network amounted to a breach of undertakings made by News Corporation in 1981 when it took over the Times to avoid a reference to the MMC by the Thatcher government.

The evidence of Mr Murdoch's influence over his publishing companies was increased by his apology to Chris Patten following the refusal of the publishing house, HarperCollins, which Mr Murdoch also owns, to publish the ex-Hong Kong governor's memoirs on China. The controversy led to allegations by Jonathan Mirsky, the Times's former China correspondent, that Mr Murdoch has suppressed criticism of the Chinese regime in the Times to avoid damaging his satellite business in the region.

Mr Ashdown, speaking on the GMTV programme, said: "I believe there is sufficient now for this to be a matter which the Secretary of State and Industry should look at." Mr Murdoch's commitments to the independent editorial integrity of the Times were included in the articles of association for the Times group and deposited with the then secretary of state for trade in January 1981 when the takeover of the Times was approved without a reference to the MMC.

The undertakings covered protection of the editorial quality and integrity of the Times titles. They stated: "In particular, Mr Murdoch subscribes to and undertakes to observe the following principles relating to editorial integrity ... (a) The Times and the Sunday Times are free from party political bias and from attachment to any section interest. They will be subject to a restraint or inhibition either in expressing opinion or in reporting news that might directly or indirectly conflict with the commercial interests or political concern of the proprietor." Professor Mirsky alleged: "The Times has simply decided because of Murdoch's interests not to cover China in a serious way."

When Mr Murdoch was in Peking, Professor Mirsky alleged, he told a Times correspondent he did not want to hear reports that the "Shanghai miracle" was a mirage. "In fact, I would like you to write a piece about Shanghai for The Sun," Mr Murdoch is alleged to have said. Mr Mirsky said: "We have here what is arguably the most famous newspaper in the world and it has just decided it has taken not an executive decision but an owner's position to leave China and Hong Kong alone."

Last week the Times editor, Peter Stothard, denied the claims of proprietorial interference. On BBC radio yesterday Andrew Neil, former Sunday Times editor, said anyone who challenged Mr Murdoch would not stay in place for long.