Publisher who fell prey to Murdoch's Asian powerplay

Patten book row shows tycoon's Eastern promise, reports Andrew Buncombe

Stuart Proffitt is thought by many to be one of the last gentlemen in the world of publishing.

Erudite, hardworking, a little professorial perhaps. He was a high-flyer and at HarperCollins, the publishers where he was employed until yesterday, he worked on many high-profile publications, including the autobiography of Margaret Thatcher. It was natural he would be working on a title such as East and West, the memoirs of Chris Patten as the last Governor of Hong Kong.

Some might mistake his careful, precise manner for those of a prima donna, but those who know Mr Proffitt say he has one characteristic above all others: he is principled.

Yesterday staff at HarperCollins, the publishing house owned by Rupert Murdoch, were informed that Mr Proffitt was no longer employed by the company. The termination of his employment was "with immediate effect".

Mr Proffitt was last night not available for comment but it is understood his departure is linked to his efforts to defend his much-valued principles.

It was reported earlier this week that senior executives had instructed Mr Proffitt to alter sections of the book - or have Mr Patten rewrite those sections - watering down criticism of the Chinese authorities. It was reported that the senior executives were in turn given their orders by their boss, Mr Murdoch.

Mr Proffitt reacted furiously to this attempt to censor one of his authors. The row resulted in Mr Proffitt's suspension and for the last two weeks his legal representatives have been in discussion with HarperCollins.

"They have clearly not been able to reach an agreement and now he has gone," said a source at the company.

It is not known whether he was sacked or he resigned. Last night no one at HarperCollins was available for comment.

And there the story might end. Except that Mr Proffitt's departure underlies what is considered by observers to be an ongoing struggle by Mr Murdoch to placate the Chinese authorities.

In 1994 he stopped the BBC, considered to be antagonistic towards Peking, from broadcasting on his Star TV satellite channel, a move strongly criticised by Mr Patten. Mr Murdoch even started broadcasting more Chinese language programmes and set up a Chinese music channel. In 1994, Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins, published a sugary biography of Deng Xiaoping by his youngest daughter. Murdoch staged a huge promotional effort for the book.He said that Star TV might one day "be a bonanza".

Mr Patten, who has had more experience of the Chinese authorities than most, claims he is more interested in having his own, non-censored words published - than making a bonanza. He said: "I am adamant that my book will be read as I intended it to be read. It is going to be quite a story."

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