Murdoch passes judgement on OJ Simpson book stunt

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The Independent US

Rupert Murdoch has personally pulled the plug on a high-profile book and two-hour television interview special with O J Simpson, in which the former American football star turned celebrity murder defendant hypothesises how he might have killed his estranged wife - assuming he was in fact guilty.

Both Mr Murdoch's Fox television network and the publishing subsidiary which bought the rights to the book, If I Did It, have come in for a torrent of criticism since they announced the project less than a week ago. Newspaper and television pundits, including a handful of Mr Murdoch's own, have denounced the idea as a tasteless, low-down publicity stunt trading in blood money.

A dozen local Fox affiliates announced they wanted nothing to do with the television interviews, which were conducted by Mr Simpson's publisher and Fox employee, Judith Regan. The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, who were slashed to death in a west Los Angeles apartment in 1994, had urged a boycott of the broadcast and the book, which they described as "disgusting" and "despicable".

Last night, Mr Murdoch's News Corp holding company finally put out a brief statement offering a rare personal apology for the lapse in judgement. "I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project," Mr Murdoch was quoted as saying. "We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson." Mr Simpson, now 57, was the protagonist at the centre of the first big media circus of the 24-hour cable news age as he first made a half-hearted - and fully televised - attempt at a getaway down the San Diego Freeway in his white Ford Bronco, then hired a "Dream Team" of defence lawyers to try to beat the double murder rap. Largely thanks to the incompetence, lies and naked racism of the Los Angeles police, he was duly acquitted following jury deliberations lasting just 42 minutes.

Much of America remained convinced, however, that he was guilty, and the year after his criminal trial he was found civilly liable for the two deaths and ordered to pay more than $30m. He promptly moved to Florida, where state law enabled him to barricade his assets against the legal claims, and has lived as a virtual pariah ever since.

Mr Simpson has periodically resurfaced to offer media interviews - insisting for a long time that he was engaged in hot pursuit of the "real" killer, attempting to tout a reality show in which he would play pranks on unsuspecting members of the public, and coming out every few years with self-serving books intended, at least in part, to pay off his substantial legal bills.

The latest venture, pairing him with the most tabloid-minded of Mr Murdoch's book editors, was too much even for an American public with a seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity tittle-tattle. The idea was to up the ratings at Fox affiliates during the so-called November "sweeps", when advertisers pay particularly close attention to audience figures and set their rates accordingly.

But the television industry rebelled against what it saw as naked calculation - the industry newspaper Broadcasting & Cable called it an "evil sweeps stunt" - and so did Geraldo Rivera, a correspondent for the cable station Fox News. "I think this project, whoever created it, is just about as low as you can go," Mr Rivera said in a guest appearance on ABC's Good Morning America. "This is an appalling idea involving a lowdown and dirty double [murderer] who's allowed to cash in on his crime."

The biggest loser in the affair appears to be Ms Regan, who started out a week ago cock-a-hoop about her scoop and intimating that what she had obtained from Mr Simpson was tantamount to a confession. Reporters who have seen the book say, however, that only one of its seven chapters is actually about the murders and does not amount to a confession at all.

By the end of last week, Ms Regan was in full-blown self-defence mode, insisting she had conducted the interview in the interests of empowering victims of child abuse and denying that she had offered Mr Simpson $3.5m (£1.8m) as had been widely reported. "I contracted through a third party who owns the rights, and I was told the money would go to his children," she said.

The Goldman and Brown families have not given up their legal battle to recover the damages they won from Mr Simpson.