The claims come from China-watcher Jonathan Mirsky, who was East Asia Editor of the Times until two months ago and has remained on a freelance basis since retiring in December.
Mr Mirsky, who won an international award for his coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre, contends that "the Times has simply decided, because of Murdoch's interests, not to cover China in a serious way." His comments - at a seminar hosted by the Freedom Forum, an international media foundation, and posted on that organisation's Internet website - are bound to inflame the controversy surrounding the decision by HarperCollins to dump Chris Patten's book based on his time as the last governor of Hong Kong, and entitled East and West. Mr Mirsky said yesterday that he regarded that decision as "shameful".
Furious about being dragged into this gathering controversy by someone still on his payroll, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, last night issued a two-page rebuttal document, in which he insisted that he had "never taken an editorial decision to suit Mr Murdoch's interests" and that "many stories in the Times have been fiercely critical of Chinese policies."
Mr Stothard was particularly annoyed by the claim that he had gone to Peking last year seeking an exclusive interview with President Jiang Zemin and had agreed to withdraw questions about the treatment of China's dissidents in a vain attempt to secure this scoop. He described Mr Mirsky's account of this episode as "a travesty of the truth".
In an attempt at damage limitation last night, Mr Murdoch told the Times that HarperCollins executives were responsible for the dispute over the Patten book.
In an astonishing claim which observers said showed how rattled Mr Murdoch had been by the affair, he said senior executives "chickened out" of telling Mr Patten they did not wish to publish it. He said he had been left in a completely inexcusable position.
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