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Sunday, March 1, 1998 Published at 20:02 GMT

World: Analysis

Rupert Murdoch faces authors' revolt
image: [ How Britain's Sunday Times (prop: R. Murdoch) reported the row ]
How Britain's Sunday Times (prop: R. Murdoch) reported the row

There has been another attack on the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch. He has already been accused of intervening to stop publication of a book on the handover of Hong Kong by its former governor Chris Patten. Now Mr Patten himself says that Rupert Murdoch is damaging free speech - and other internationally known authors are joining in the criticism too. Richard Walker reports.

What, asked most of the British newspapers this weekend, is Rupert Murdoch's game? Does the Australian-born media baron who owns newspapers, broadcasters and publishers across the world, want to open up the globe for the free flow of information? Or does he actually want to crush opinion wherever business happens to demand it?

[ image: Rupert Murdoch: does he want to open up the world?]
Rupert Murdoch: does he want to open up the world?
Rupert Murdoch himself has already said what he believes in: "Advances in the technology of telecommunications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everwhere."

Global free speech

However, allegations that Mr Murdoch personally forced his publishing house HarperCollins to drop a book on Hong Kong that was critical of China have tended to undermine Mr Murdoch's claim to be an exponent of global free speech. Some have said that Mr Murdoch is not a friend to free speech, but a threat to it.

'Indispensible buttress'

Peter Hennessey, for example, is a distinguished political historian who is also published by HarperCollins. He said: "We all understand within our bones what the publishing arm of an open society has got to be. It's an absolutely indispensible buttress on an inquisitive, open society. And Harper Collins, quite simply, has ceased to be a member of our open society."

[ image: Chris Patten's book was praised by editor Stuart Profitt]
Chris Patten's book was praised by editor Stuart Profitt
Others, like novelist Fay Weldon - another HarperCollins author - have rounded on their publisher with a warning that media magnates like Mr Murdoch have to be controlled by government.

"Mr Murdoch has made a commercial decision. I don't see why anybody is particularly surprised. This is what he does; this is what publishers do. He is not in there for the defence of free speech. I hope that governments are there for that purpose," she said.

Big business

One writer who knows Rupert Murdoch personally, having worked for him, is media commentator Roy Greenslade. He says that it's inevitable that in a business as big as Rupert Murdoch's, there will be conflicts between editors who want to publish freely and managers who might be trying to do deeals with the very people their editors are criticising.

[ image: Media commentator Roy Greenslade]
Media commentator Roy Greenslade
"There are plenty of examples where Murdoch has been upset by the intrusion of some of his employees into wider business activities," he said. "He was particularly upset with Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, who ran articles critical of the Mahatir regime in Malaysia. It is fairly common, and because he has his finger is so many pies he expects one arm of his company to be respecting another."

'No longer a player'

Some believe that the decision to drop Chris Patten's book could itself end up damaging Mr Murdoch's business interests. Peter Hennessey added: "I don't think HarperCollins will ever be a big player again, in serious publishing. No doubt it will have all sorts of books that sell extremely well, but when it comes to being right on the edge of learning, knowledge and its transmission - the bits that really make a difference in the long run - it is no longer a player. It has had it."

Most commentators are assuming that Mr Murdoch's desire to do business in China is what lies behind the decision not to publish Chris Patten's Hong Kong memoir. HarperCollins itself has claimed that the book was simply not good enough, but Mr Patten's editor at HarperCollins has said the opposite - that the book was excellent.

[ image: Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil]
Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil
And Ray Snoddy, media editor of Mr Murdoch's own paper The Times, believes that it was indeed Mr Murdoch's ambitions in the Chinese market that thwarted Mr Patten's book. He said: "It seems to me completely obvious that the Chris Patten book was dropped by HarperCollins because it might be seen as a threat to those economic aspirations.

Economics and business

"A lot of people say Murdoch has got great businesses in China. That's not true. He has got aspirations to open up great business interests in China."

Meanwhile the man at the centre of the story, Rupert Murdoch himself, has made no comment. Those who know him describe him as invariably soft-spoken, courteous -- and ruthless. Roy Greenslade thinks he knows how Rupert Murdoch would see the issue:

"Economics and business and commerce is what Rupert believes drives the world. It improves the world, it improves things for human beings, and as a businessman he believes he is doing good when he does these things."

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