Magazine article The Spectator

A Chinese Storm Is about to Break over Mr Murdoch

Magazine article The Spectator

A Chinese Storm Is about to Break over Mr Murdoch

Article excerpt

Last Sunday the Sunday Telegraph ran a story about Christopher Patten, late governor of Hong Kong, and Rupert Murdoch. Mr Patten was commissioned some time ago to write a book about Asia for HarperCollins, the publisher owned by Mr Murdoch, and promised an advance of some L150,000. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Murdoch has been attempting to censor harsh criticisms of the Chinese regime which Mr Patten makes in his book, Mr Murdoch having many business interests in China. The paper also claimed that Stuart Proffitt, editor-in-chief of HarperCollins, has been suspended after objecting when Murdoch executives instructed him to persuade Mr Patten to water down anti-Chinese passages.

This story was a tip-off from a freelance. By any standards it was a sensation. On the day it appeared an item was published by the Mail on Sunday which carried an entirely different, indeed precisely opposite, interpretation. Black Dog, the paper's diarist, agreed with the Sunday Telegraph that Mr Patten's book East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong was no longer likely to be published by HarperCollins, but offered quite another explanation. It had been `dumped for being too boring'. The paper wrote that `with matchsticks propping up their drooping eyelids, editors at top publishers HarperCollins realised that the flat, turgid tome was beyond salvage'.

The first thing to say is that, at the time of writing, no newspaper has followed up either story apart from the Mirror, which broadly followed the Sunday Telegraph line. This is very strange. Here we have two opposing interpretations of the same set of circumstances. Either way it is a ripping tale. If we believe one version; poor old Christopher Patten couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, and has been sacked by his publishers. If we believe the other, Mr Murdoch has been caught redhanded trying to suppress opinions which don't suit his interests. Even his bitterest critics cannot point to many examples of the man actually censoring things he doesn't like.

So which version is true? It is certainly not the Mail on Sunday's. Mr Patten may not be Balzac but he can turn a perfectly good phrase, and has already written one book besides many newspaper articles. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the Mail on Sunday's Black Dog has been sold a pup, probably by a Murdoch PR company in the United States. It knew a scandal was about to break - the Sunday Telegraph's story was the first wave - and so some preemptive rubbishing of Mr Patten was thought desirable.

I telephoned Mr Patten at his house in France, where he is putting the finishing touches to his oeuvre, and found him uncustomarily taciturn. Perhaps a little unsportingly, he declined my invitation to speak to me off the record, saying that lawyers were involved and he felt a little cut off on the other side of the Channel. However, when I asked him whether the Sunday Telegraph's account was broadly correct, he said that `there was much more to it than that'. He added that it `would all come out within the next 24 or 48 hours', possibly through some sort of statement. I am writing this on Wednesday morning, and it may be that I am telling the reader what he has just learnt.

Other sources have been more forthcoming than Mr Patten. …

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