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Murdoch offers `censor' to China

"Smart card" technology that would allow television programmes to be vetted before being broadcast is among options believed to have been offered by Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate, to persuade the authorities in China to let him expand his Star TV network there.

According to a Hong Kong newspaper, Mr Murdoch made the offer during a visit to Peking this month. This followed a trip by executives of News Data Communications, a subsidiary of Mr Murdoch's News Corporation that manufactures the technology.

Star TV declined to comment on the report, apart from confirming that Mr Murdoch had been in Hong Kong before Christmas for a regular inspection of the network's operations. However, News Datacom said the company had been in discussions with Chinese television about introducing pay-TV technology such as that used by BSkyB in Britain and DirectTV in the US.

"We do not provide systems which censor programmes," a spokeswoman said. "If Rupert Murdoch has offered News Datacom's technology to the Chinese, then he has done so because the Chinese wish to introduce pay-TV."

Industry sources say existing pay-TV technology could easily be adapted to enable previewing by censors, a prospect with obvious attractions to a government anxious to maintain tight news control. Mr Murdoch, however, is known to be more interested in finding new outlets for his lucrative film and entertainment services, and the technology would prove just as effective at fending off the cultural corruption that the Chinese government fears Western entertainment would bring.

A master control unit in Peking could receive Star TV's subscription channels. Programmes could then be distributed to 31 provincial centres equipped with decoders supplied by News Datacom. From there, the programmes would be fed to local cable television networks.

Mr Murdoch is eager for his pay-TV empire to tap into China's vast earning potential. He bought two-thirds of Star TV from Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong property developer, in July 1993.

Ever since warning last year that technological advances had "proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere", Mr Murdoch has been trying to rehabilitate himself with the Chinese. Earlier this year, he admitted he had dropped BBC World Service Television from the Far Eastern part of Star TV to placate Peking.