A Publishing Blunder Which May Well Rebound; Chief Feature Writer Dennis Ellam Analyses the Risk Rupert Murdoch Take S in Banning Chris Patten's Book

Article excerpt

Since Mr Rupert Murdoch is the boss, then it might be argued that Mr Rupert Murdoch is perfectly entitled to run every part of his empire in any legal way he thinks fit.

However, the publishing business is fraught with subtle inconsistencies; an obvious commercial decision is not always a good editorial decision.

And in the case of Mr Chris Patten's memoirs, abruptly dropped by his HarperCollins book division, Mr Murdoch has blundered into making a very bad decision indeed, one which could prove to have damaging repercussions for some time to come.

It smacks of irresponsibility, of power being wielded without a thought for the practical consequences, let alone the moral aspects.

Ultimately the baron in person, or at least his senior people, might have to appear in public to explain how his empire makes any attempt to balance its own commercial interests with the editorial freedoms it purports to defend.

Mr Patten's memoirs are famous, even before they are written.

Having advanced the former Hong Kong governor pounds 100,000 plus for his book, HarperCollins have cancelled his contract, apparently because it did not care for criticisms of the Chinese government contained in the work.

Or more to the point, because Mr Murdoch objected to them. "Kill the ****ing book!" he is alleged to have ranted at his imperial guard.

The same Chinese government which will emerge badly from Mr Patten's tome has, in contrast, just allowed Mr Murdoch a foothold into its broadcasting industry - potentially, the biggest market in the world.

His Star TV channel has recently opened on the country's fledgling cable system, and Mr Murdoch has made no secret of his ambitions to expand there.

The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, keenly await their chance to read Mr Patten's book. In the commercial reckoning, it made no sense to risk the TV deals by having another Murdoch company publish the offending work.

If this scenario is accurate, then the world's most powerful media giant is belittled and put to shame by it.

Another of HarperCollins' heavyweight authors, the political commentator Simon Heffer, is sending back his advances cheque in protest, and taking the manuscript of his biography of Enoch Powell elsewhere, and other big names might yet follow suit. …