Leading Article: The Murdoch mask slips

THANKS TO the courage and sense of honour of the publishing editor Stuart Proffitt, Rupert Murdoch has been found out. Mr Proffitt, senior editor at the Murdoch subsidiary HarperCollins, refused to lie to Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, about the real reason that Mr Patten's book about the Far East was being withdrawn. Which was that Mr Murdoch is so driven by greed in fostering his media interests in China that he wouldn't risk even a remote connection with a book which might criticise one of the most repressive Communist regimes in the world.

One passage leaps out from the anxious memo from Eddie Bell, chairman of HarperCollins, questioning the decision by his New York bosses to ditch the Patten book. It is the one in which Mr Bell refers to Mr Murdoch's description of the book as having "negative aspects". The phrase - which would be hilarious if it were not so chilling - has about it the wholly appropriate ring of the totalitarian Communist regime which Mr Murdoch is now single-mindedly courting. Indeed Mr Murdoch has emerged as the ultimate capitalist - which is to say a capitalist without principles, easily prepared to exchange, when it suits him, the standards of liberal democracy for those of a brutally repressive form of perverted Marxism- Leninism.

The British political leader at whose feet Mr Murdoch worshipped most actively before his marriage of convenience with Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher. But to her great credit the Thatcher stance was as consistent towards Peking as it was to pre-Gorbachev Moscow. She never flinched, for example, from backing Mr Patten's decision as Governor of Hong Kong to stand up for democracy in the colony. We knew, by contrast, that Mr Murdoch took a coldly pragmatic view - stopping the BBC in 1994 from broadcasting on his Far East satellite company Star TV because free reporting threatened his China interests. But then we have discovered that there was still more to learn about Mr Murdoch: there is very little that he will not do to increase his money and power. To borrow a phrase from his adopted country, this is "kiss up, kick down" on a now global scale. He kow-tows to Peking, while stamping vigorously on the testimony of one Britain's biggest and most intelligent public servants.

The latest evidence of his bullying and the morally indefensible demands it makes on his employees has an importance which goes well beyond the damage he has inflicted on the publishing house of HarperCollins. For the more Mr Murdoch's methods and goals are exposed, the more they raise questions about the cosiness of the relationship he enjoys with the Labour government. The suspicion is growing that Mr Murdoch's influence can be detected in several aspects of government policy: the refusal to tackle predatory pricing, where Mr Murdoch's own interests are clear; union recognition; the Prime Minister's aversion to any form of privacy legislation; and the Government's caution on EMU, to name but four. His influence may in some instances be exaggerated: certainly Mr Blair hasn't bought into the Murdoch paranoia about Europe, though his reluctance to contemplate an EMU referendum this side of a general election certainly reflects a fear of how the Murdoch papers would respond if he did. Even on predatory pricing Blair allies continue to insist that the Prime Minister has formed his own view on what mechanisms it would, and would not, be right to include in the Competition Bill. But all this would more convincing if amid all the favours the Murdoch media grant New Labour - most recently The Sun's gung-ho coverage of Mr Blair's conduct of the Gulf crisis, and BSkyB's sponsorship of the Dome - ministers could point to just one policy which adversely affects Mr Murdoch's designs.

The point about the HarperCollins saga is that there are some clear good guys - Mr Patten, Mr Proffitt - and one clear bad guy - Mr Murdoch. The Prime Minister would no doubt say that the internal affairs of Mr Murdoch's media empire are no business of his. But it has been illuminating about the kind of man Mr Murdoch is. We thought Mr Blair was on the side of the good guys. It must be time for him to reassess his relationship with the one man who emerges from this sorry tale without a shred of credit.