Writs fly as Patten book ban throws literary world into turmoil

THE LITERARY world was in turmoil last night with authors threatening to walk out on HarperCollins, rival publishers moving in for the kill and writs flying, after claims that Rupert Murdoch intervened to force the company to drop Chris Patten's book on Asia because it could affect his commercial interests in China.

At least four writers, Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing, Peter Hennessy and Anthony Storr publicly criticised Mr Murdoch, whose company News Corporation owns HarperCollins, and called for a meeting of authors to plan action.

Adding to Harper's troubles were rival publishers who yesterday were ringing around literary agents trying to attract disgruntled writers from HarperCollins' list. At the same time, a writ was lodged in the High Court on behalf of Mr Patten claiming breach of contract against HarperCollins.

Added drama came in a memo that was sent by HarperCollins' chairman Eddie Bell to the head of Mr Murdoch's American publishing arm, Anthea Disney, in which he explains how Mr Murdoch felt the book had "negative aspects". The memo also registered concern that the decision to drop the book could threaten the memoirs that Mr Patten's friend John Major is writing for the publisher. The memo also reveals that Mr Bell is concerned that a mysterious "Project Y" might be affected. Project Y is a sensitive and major book which has just secured a serialisation deal, but its author is known to be "unhappy" about the events at HarperCollins.

Mr Patten last night refused to comment. But his literary agent, Michael Sissons, praised Stuart Proffitt, Mr Patten's editor, who has left HarperCollins after protesting at what he saw as censorship by Mr Murdoch who was trying to protect his business interests in China. Mr Sissons said: "It is now clear that he fought a lone battle for this book and for his author for many weeks before he was suspended. He must have paid a high personal price for his courage and integrity."

The writ listed the loss of serialisation opportunities with Rupert Murdoch's Times and Sunday Times as one of his complaints. So far neither newspaper has written about the story.

Last night, News Corporation issued a statement that Mr Murdoch "at no time tried to change" Mr Patten's book.

The former Hong Kong governor was to have been paid pounds 125,000 for the book's publication but he could have at least equalled that in a serialisation deal.

In Mr Bell's memo, he wrote of organising a PR strategy that would accompany a decision to pull the book. This is thought to be the source of a diary item in last week's Mail on Sunday which claimed that the book was being "dumped for being too boring".

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