Murdoch Puts China Billions Over Books

Decision to cancel publication of a book critical of the Beijing government has some authors up in arms.

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, long criticized for his tough and sometimes ruthless handling of his global newspaper and satellite TV empire, is under fire from a new quarter.

Leading authors contracted to the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins publishing house accuse him of putting his drive to forge business links with China ahead of a commitment to free speech. Some are cutting ties with the firm. Others are threatening to do so.

The authors claim HarperCollins's decision to drop "East and West," a book by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has undermined their confidence in the editorial integrity of HarperCollins. The senior editor dealing with the book has resigned in protest.

Mr. Patten is suing HarperCollins for breach of contract and has placed the manuscript with rival publisher Macmillan.

On Sunday, Ben Pimlott, author of an acclaimed biography of Queen Elizabeth II, told friends that he will not continue with HarperCollins. Those threatening to quit include contemporary historian Peter Hennessy and bestselling novelist Doris Lessing. Mr. Hennessy says the decision on "East and West" could signal "the end of a great publishing house." He adds, "Nobody of any worth will want their books to go there anymore."

Mr. Murdoch's readiness to intervene in the operations of his TV and newspaper companies is well known. In the mid-1990s, he ended a contract with the British Broadcasting Corporation for use of his Hong Kong-based Star TV satellite. The BBC later claimed this was because its newscasts on the Tiananmen Square massacre angered the Beijing government.

Murdoch is currently trying to persuade China to accept Star TV cable programs. Andrew Neil, a former senior editor in Murdoch's news empire, wrote in The Guardian yesterday, "Murdoch made a simple calculation when dropping Chris Patten's book: Some flak in Britain was worth suffering when there are many millions of dollars to be made in China."

William Shawcross, who wrote a biography of the Australian-born tycoon, says there is "no doubt Patten's book was rejected because its publication with the HarperCollins imprint would make it harder for Murdoch to advance his media interests in China." Murdoch hopes to persuade the Chinese authorities to let him broadcast to "the biggest untapped TV market in the world," Mr. Shawcross says.

Murdoch is currently resisting British government moves to tighten rules on cross-media ownership. As well as dominating more than one-third of the national newspaper market, he has a controlling interest in the satellite company British Sky Broadcasting.

On Friday, Murdoch said through a spokesman that he had disagreed with the earlier decision by HarperCollins to accept the Patten book. He told Eddie Bell, the publisher's top British director, that the book contained "negative aspects." Mr. Bell later ordered the contract cancelled. But Murdoch denied claims that he had asked for parts of the manuscript to be altered.

Murdoch is believed to have been worried by Patten's reported description of China's leaders, with whom Patten negotiated last year's handover of Hong Kong, as "faceless Stalinists."

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