Murdoch firm tried to kill satire on Bush

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The Independent US

An irreverent new book that invites President George Bush to admit that he is a "functional illiterate" has shot straight to the top of the American best-seller list, even though it almost never saw the light of day because the publisher thought it went too far.

The success of Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation by populist film-maker and activist Michael Moore is surely causing red faces at HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Mr Moore, whose BBC2 series TV Nation was a success in Britain, has revealed how close his editors came to killing the book when it was first due for publication last October, in the wake of the World Trade Centre tragedy. HarperCollins, by contrast, is keeping quiet on the subject.

"We are very happy with the book," said Lisa Herling, the director of corporate communications. And the promotional blurb sent to reviewers underlines the point: "Few have been willing to speak out with a different point of view lately – until now."

The "different point of view", however, was at first too much for HarperCollins. After Mr Moore refused a request from his editors to tone down the book and rewrite at least half of it, the publishing house – according to his version of events – threatened to pulp 50,000 copiesthat had already been printed. "I told them I wouldn't change 50 per cent of one word," Mr Moore said. A three-month stand-off then followed before the decision was made to publish it after all.

"I was very surprised," Mr Moore said of the firm's change of heart. "They were adamant about their dislike of the things I had to say about Bush." He has said that when the pulping option was raised, HarperCollins suggested he pay $100,000 (£73,000) from his pocket to defray the costs.

Most of the barbs against Mr Bush are in a chapter written as an open letter to the president. Among questions he asks is this: "Are you an alcoholic, and if so, how is this affecting your performance as Commander in Chief?" And there are others: "George, are you able to read and write on an adult level? It appears to me and many others that, sadly, you may be a functional illiterate. This is nothing to be ashamed of. You have lots of company ... But let me ask you this: if you have trouble comprehending the complex position papers you are handed as the Leader of the Mostly Free World, how can we entrust something like our nuclear secrets to you?"

If HarperCollins is sensitive to charges that it came close to censoring Mr Moore, there are reasons that go back to 1998. That was the year in which the company caused a furore when it cancelled East and West, Chris Patten's reflections on his years as Hong Kong's last governor. Mr Murdoch did not like the book because it was harsh about China, a country he was trying to do business in.

There is no evidence that Mr Murdoch was personally involved in holding up the Michael Moore book. But then it is hard to know, because HarperCollins refuses to discuss exactly what was going on when it asked Mr Moore to redraft his pages.

"Because of 11 September, we decided it would be best to put the book on hold," Ms Herling said. "But I am not going to get into a discussion about the conversations we had with Mr Moore. Ultimately it was decided we were enthusiastic about the book."