Bookworm who turned

An idealistic young publisher has exposed Rupert Murdoch as a liar, writes David Lister

David Lister
Saturday 28 February 1998 01:02 GMT

IN THE end it didn't take a fellow media magnate or a disgruntled famous editor to expose Rupert Murdoch as a liar and a threat to democracy.

The unlikely hero of a week of drama, writs and leaked memos is a young, idealistic bookworm: a publisher who would no longer tolerate Murdoch trying to subordinate a once great publishing house to his own business interests.

Thirty-six year old Stuart Proffitt had a job he loved: working at HarperCollins on Chris Patten's memoirs of the Hong Kong handover. Murdoch, who owns HarperCollins, wanted to ditch the book as it criticises the Chinese. Murdoch is in the business of toadying to China's totalitarian regime, as he wants to extend his TV empire into the lucrative Chinese market.

So the Patten book had to be ditched. And, as is normal with Murdoch, he expected his staff to lie for him, to claim that the book was "substandard". To HarperCollins's eternal shame, the key executives involved agreed to do so. It is all in a day's work in Murdochland.

But Stuart Proffitt refused. He thought the manuscript first rate. He also believed there was a certain honour, a certain integrity left in publishing even in these days of ownership by multinationals. And so he defied Murdoch. He paid with his job.

As he told the tale this week, a picture emerged, as it has never emerged before, of how a once-great publishing house now kow-tows to a media tycoon pursuing his own wider business interests, just as that owner kow-tows to the Chinese.

As Proffitt worked on the book, Murdoch's henchmen in Britain and America began an offensive to ditch it and show it was not up to scratch. Proffitt stood up to Murdoch's henchmen to declare that the Patten book was the best by a politician he had read in 15 years. Proffitt would have to go. Literary worth, accuracy, democracy, historical record - all these things count for nothing in HarperCollins if they get in the way of Murdoch's global ambition.

The bravery of Stuart Proffitt has shattered the reputation of the publishing company he has served since leaving university. It is hard to see how any of its authors, ranging from Jeffrey Archer to John Major, from Doris Lessing to Arundhati Roy, can hold their heads up now. Fay Weldon is already signalling that she wants to sever her connection with Murdoch's yes men.

Other publishers are preparing their chequebooks. Martin Neild, managing director of Hodder and Stoughton, predicts: "The general uncertainty will spread among HarperCollins's writers. Of course, we will take advantage of the situation." Inside HarperCollins, senior and junior employees are reeling. One insider said: "There's stunned disbelief here. I cannot recall this type of interference before."

There speaks a man who has not studied the career of Keith Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch has an eclectic interest in communications. He owns HarperCollins. He owns Twentieth Century Fox, BSkyB and Star TV in Asia. His newspaper empire embraces The Australian, the New York Post and, over here, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News Of The World.

Murdoch's use of his communications empire to try to subvert democracy is commonplace. Just as the Conservatives in the Eighties opposed moves to refer his newspaper and television acquisitions to the Monopolies Commission, so Tony Blair and his Government have proved remarkably uninterested in complaints about predatory pricing by The Times.

He offered Republican Senate leader Newt Gingrich $4.5m for a complete non-book: a thinly disguised inducement to acquiesce to Murdoch's lobbying interests.

He dismissed Andrew Neil as editor of The Sunday Times because he was worried his television interests in Asia would be damaged by the paper's persistent investigation into "aid" payments by Britain to Malaysia to get building contracts for the Pergau Dam. Neil got a pounds 1m pay-off.

He axed the BBC's World Service channel from his Star TV network in order to appease the Beijing regime, who were less than impressed by Kate Adie's reports of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

He pressurised once-respectable publisher Basic Books in New York, a recent acquisition, to release a cringingly propagandistic biography of Deng Xiaoping, amid lavish publicity. Its author? Deng Ron, the despot's own daughter.

Murdoch's kow-towing to Beijing has paid off. China, the biggest single prize in the global TV market, has just granted him the extraordinary "special concession" of launching a Mandarin language channel, Phoenix, for the Chinese market.

Then, to Murdoch's annoyance, came trouble from HarperCollins.

The Patten manuscript was being handled by Proffitt, who had secured a pounds 125,000 contract with Patten. But for Proffitt, it it was a labour of love.

After reading the manuscript at home over a weekend, he sent a memo to Eddie Bell, the head of HarperCollins UK, enthusing: "I finished Chris Patten's text (the first two thirds of the book) over the weekend. The impression I had when I'd finished the first chapter is confirmed. This is probably the most lucid, best written and compelling book I have read by any politician of any persuasion since I came into publishing."

It was an unusual move for Proffitt to write a memo about the manuscript to his boss, as he did on Tuesday, 20 January. He had a reason. As he revealed in a legal declaration, published in The Daily Telegraph, he was aware that HarperCollins's proprietor was taking an unhealthy interest in the book, an interest that was to bring the bookworm into headlong collision with the media magnate.

He had, he said, been told several times in late 1997 by Eddie Bell "that Rupert Murdoch had called him to express extreme displeasure that we had signed the book".

As Murdoch's ex-newspaper editors know, calls from across the sea expressing extreme displeasure at their decisions are not to be ignored.

The next day, 21 January, Eddie Bell sent a copy of Proffitt's report on the book to America and his boss, Anthea Disney, chairman and CEO of News America Publishing, a wholly owned subsidiary of News Corporation. Anthea Disney, at 50, still has the slim figure, black hair and dark eyes that in the Seventies accompanied her New York column for the Daily Mail. She was not one to ignore her patron's "extreme displeasure". And she ordered Bell to relinquish the rights to the book.

Bell's memo to Disney reminded her of the bad PR such a move would attract. He wrote: "Following your instruction to relinquish rights, I have given considerable thought to the potential ramifications of such action. The more I have thought about this, the more concerned I have become. In fact, I am extremely worried."

The memo continues: "K.R.M. has outlined to me the negative aspects of publication which I fully understand ... Within Britain, NewsCorp's actions are clearly tracked and reported on by an often hostile media. NewsCorp's ambitions in China are often commented upon.

Proffitt continued editing and praising the Patten book, giving a dinner in Patten's honour at the Savoy on 29 January.

A week later, Proffitt was informed that a decision had been taken to withdraw Patten's book on the grounds that "the text was disappointing and that it was not worth what we had paid for it". Proffitt said he would have to consider his position. He was sent home and suspended from work.

On 10 February Adrian Bourne contacted Chris Patten's literary agent, Michael Sissons, and told him they were not going to publish the book as "it did not accord with the synopsis and was below standard". Sissons was extremely surprised and the pair met that afternoon. Sissons recalls: "I was not only smelling a rat. It was dangling right in front of my nose. He blurted out that Chris Patten did not seem to have anything good to say about Asia. Then the penny dropped."

The penny, of course, is that Murdoch wants to extend his TV empire into China and cannot risk offending the totalitarian Chinese regime.

Stuart Proffitt is suing HarperCollins for constructive dismissal, declaring this week that what they asked of him "would have meant, in short, both lying and doing enormous damage to my own reputation. This is not something which a company can properly ask one of its employees to do".

Mr Proffitt is right. Lying and doing enormous damage to your reputation is not something a company should ask one of its employees to do. But that is a perilously old-fashioned principle in Murdochland, where lies and reputations count for little.

If Tony Blair wants more details about his most powerful media supporter, he should give Stuart Proffitt a ring. He's easy to reach, being out of work at present.

Additional reporting by Mel Steel

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