Sorry, the Martians ate our story about Mr Murdoch and the Patten book

I DON'T often read The Times, but I have been making sure to get it recently for the fun of trying to spot any references to this HarperCollins business over the Chris Patten book. Finally I came across a piece on the Murdoch business in Tuesday's Times, in which Libby Purves adopted a testy, no-nonsense attitude, a Now-children-get-your-hats-and-coats- on-and-let's-all-go-for-a-jolly-healthy-walk-in-the-rain tone of voice, and said, Oh, come on, let's all grow up! if Murdoch doesn't want to have egg thrown at China's leaders by Chris Patten, he is perfectly entitled not to have egg flung. Almost the only thing that puzzled Ms Purves (apart from why HarperCollins had taken the risk of accepting the book in the first place) was why Times newspapers had not given more coverage to the whole thing. Bit odd, that. But one thing she was sure of. It wasn't on direct orders from Murdoch.

Raymond Snoddy, who seems to handle coverage of media affairs for The Times, said the same sort of thing when he appeared on on Medium Wave on Radio 4 at the weekend. He was absolutely certain that Murdoch hadn't issued any instructions to any editor to avoid the story. Though he couldn't think why he hadn't given it more coverage. Nor could Peter Stothard, the editor of The Times. He could certainly vouch for the fact that he was not acting under pressure from Mr Murdoch. Certainly not. There was no improper pressure at all. Looking back, he felt he might have underplayed the story a bit, though he couldn't explain why...

Well, I think I can explain why. I think they were all dead scared. Sometimes it's called self-censorship, sometimes it's called over-cautiousness, but what it is basically is being dead scared. Scared for your job, scared of being hauled over the coals, scared of rocking the boat... We've all done it. We've all drawn back from the edge of some daring decision, wondering if it was worth it and deciding it wasn't. It's the letter of complaint we never dared write, the things we never dared say to people's faces, the moments of bravery that passed in a cowardly blur of inaction, the times we could have investigated a cry or stopped a fight...

I can remember doing it myself, though I'd rather mention a time when it was done to me, as I come out of this story better. When I was doing a column for The Times, I wrote a piece in which I decided to parody The Sun's style of headline-writing by going back through history and wondering how they would have greeted various famous historical events. It wasn't an original idea, even then. I think I got the idea from a feature in Punch in which Alan Coren imagined all the papers reporting the birth of Jesus. (The only bit of that I can remember now was his excellent headline for the Daily Worker: "Boss's Son Inherits Earth!").

Anyway, I came up with some historical headlines for The Sun - 1066: "Naff Off, You Normans!". And so on. Pretty harmless stuff. So I was amazed to get a call from someone quite high up at The Times saying they couldn't use the piece. They couldn't be seen being rude about a sister publication.

"Why not?" I spluttered. (I'm sure I spluttered.)

"Times readers wouldn't know what you were getting at."

"Of course they would! Times readers despise The Sun!

"Be that as it may, Times readers would wonder why a Times writer was being rude about a sister publication. They would wonder what was behind it."

"But... "

I should have saved my breath. The fact was that he was scared to use the piece for the fictitious fear of offending someone. What people in that position never actually say, though, is that they are dead scared of publishing something for fear of offending the boss. You'd rather say that you can't understand how it happened, or that aliens came down and took the item out, rather than just say you were scared...

Never mind. I have to go to London now. No, not another countryside march. This time it's a rather moving historical pageant. Yes, it's the ceremony to mark the occasion of the return of the fateful manuscript to Chris Patten. It's going to be a moving, sorrowful ritual to match the handing back of Hong Kong... The drums beating slowly, the rain falling, the muffled horses' hooves as Chris Patten walks forward with bent head to receive the ancient tattered typescript which had found a home for so long with HarperCollins... The 2,000 employees of the BBC flown out at tremendous expense to cover the handover, and to have a great time on expenses ... The headlines: "I tried to bring democracy to HarperCollins, says Patten, but it was too late..."

Won't be reported in The Times, of course.