Writing for Rupert

The HarperCollins affair which briefly convulsed the British media raises a host of big questions about free speech, the way we deal with dictators and the power of media proprietors. Timothy Garton Ash, one of the writers who left HarperCollins in protest, draws some unexpected conclusions
April 19, 1998

I must start by declaring an interest. My last book, The File, was superbly edited and published by Stuart Proffitt at HarperCollins. I was looking forward to working with him on two further books. But in mid-February, I began to hear rumours of strange goings-on. When the Sunday Telegraph reported Proffitt's involvement in a row over Rupert Murdoch's desire to drop Chris Patten's book about Asia, I telephoned him at home. He explained that he could not explain-for legal reasons-but said an announcement would come soon.

Then, on Friday 27th February, came the bombshell. The Daily Telegraph published a statutory declaration by Proffitt which made it clear that he had been pushed out after refusing the suggestion from his bosses that he should join them in lying about the reasons for rejecting Patten's book.

The next day, I asked my agent to withdraw my two further books from HarperCollins. I did this not simply out of loyalty to my editor, but also in protest at the way in which he had been treated by Eddie Bell and Adrian Bourne, the senior managers of HarperCollins UK. Behind their actions I saw Murdoch's desire to appease the Chinese communist leadership out of commercial self-interest. Because my books deal with the way in which people in central Europe defied communist dictatorships, at great personal risk, any whiff of the appeasement of a communist dictatorship by people in the west who had nothing to lose but their profits was especially distasteful. If the newspapers are to be believed, I participated in an "authors' revolt."

I naturally took a special interest in the story which then unfolded across the front pages of the British press. While it unfolded, I spoke privately to many friends and acquaintances involved on different sides. The affair goes far beyond the fate of a single editor or publishing house. It raises a number of big questions about free speech, the way we deal with dictators, the power of media proprietors, government policy towards them and, not least, about the more or less subtle constraints under which British publishers, editors, journalists and authors work today. It forces us to ask: are we really as free as we think we are? And: what should we do to be more free?

But first we should recall the sequence of events. This story is inseparable from the way it was reported; the only way to tell it is by telling how it was reported. This was the media on the media on the media.

the story was broken on 22nd February by the Sunday Telegraph, owned by Conrad Black and, together with its sister paper the Daily Telegraph, locked in a bitter circulation war with the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times and The Times. It was not followed up until Thursday 26th February, when the Evening Standard splashed the story on its front page. On Friday 27th the Daily Telegraph did not merely splash; it dive-bombed with a front page lead story: "Why Murdoch killed Patten book." Two full news pages included-exclusive to the Telegraph-Stuart Proffitt's statutory declaration and the text of Eddie Bell's memorandum to Anthea Disney, his boss in New York, containing the now notorious sentence "KRM [Keith Rupert Murdoch] has outlined to me the negative aspects of publication which I fully understand." A leading article, in which I detected the full-blooded prose of the editor, Charles Moore, denounced both the iniquity of "KRM" and the feebleness of Tony Blair's government in not standing up to Murdoch on, among other things, his "predatory pricing"-that is, the way he has cut the cover price of The Times in order to take readers away from the Daily Telegraph.

On Saturday, the Telegraph splashed again with "Authors in revolt over Murdoch" on the front page. A full inside page quoted a number of HarperCollins authors expressing outrage and saying that they might leave the publisher. The Telegraph was now joined in the hunt by the Guardian (owned by the Scott Trust, which is chaired by the columnist Hugo Young), and the Independent (owned by Mirror Group Newspapers and the Irish Independent, with full ownership about to pass to the latter). The front page of the Guardian proclaimed "Murdoch authors in revolt"; the Independent ran something similar. The "authors' revolt" was taken up by radio and television news. Meanwhile, in an editorial misjudgement which will surely enter journalistic history, Murdoch's Times ran on page five a small news story by its media editor, Raymond Snoddy, entitled "News Corp puts its side in row over Patten book."

On 1st March, the Sunday Telegraph continued the campaign with an announcement by Simon Heffer (a long-time Telegraph journalist) that he was "returning Mr Murdoch's cheque" for a biography of Enoch Powell he had contracted to write for HarperCollins. "There might be some who would say," wrote Heffer, "that any author who takes the HarperCollins shilling after what they have done to Mr Proffitt and Mr Patten is condoning censorship and dishonesty, and I would not want to disagree with them; but I do not want to get on my high horse about that." (A fine example of hyperbolic apophasis: that is, mounting your high horse while claiming not to.) The Independent on Sunday ran a big piece on Murdoch and a commentary wondering why distinguished writers for The Times and Sunday Times had been silent on this affair. The Observer had a full page on Murdoch and a commentary in which I suggested that the reputation of HarperCollins could only be restored by the departure of its chairman, Eddie Bell.

The Sunday Times reported (at the top of page five) that HarperCollins' authors were divided on the issue. While quoting the outraged remarks of Doris Lessing and Penelope Fitzgerald, it also cited popular authors Michael Dobbs and Frank Delaney, defending their publisher. On Monday, the Telegraph and the Independent suggested that other authors might leave, and on Tuesday the Telegraph reported that Chris Patten's literary agent, Michael Sissons, had called for an authors' boycott of HarperCollins. Meanwhile, back at The Times, media editor Raymond Snoddy hurried to restore his credibility by reporting that the author Jonathan Power was thinking of taking a book proposal for a history of Amnesty International away from HarperCollins. On the op-ed page, regular Times columnist Libby Purves had a defiant piece saying she preferred "Murdoch on the bone" to pallid "vegeburger consensus." Every paper trims to its proprietor, she argued, but if you didn't like it you could always go to another one. The fact that rival papers had covered the story so gleefully meant this had been "not a bad outbreak of free speech all round."

On Wednesday the hunt was livelier than ever. The Telegraph and other non-Murdoch papers were able to splash again with accusations by Jonathan Mirsky, The Times's own China expert, that since just before the Hong Kong takeover, The Times had gone soft on China-and its editor, Peter Stothard, had been humiliated by the Chinese authorities. The Times, for once able to make the running itself, reported on its front page that Murdoch had confirmed-"speaking from his car on the way to Luton airport"-that he had told HarperCollins to drop the Patten book. But instead of straightforwardly passing on their master's wishes, the senior executives at HarperCollins had, Murdoch said, "screwed it up."

By this time, even the high horse of the master of the hunt, Charles Moore, seemed to be tiring, but the lead was now taken by the Independent and the Guardian. On Wednesday, prompted by the Mirsky story, the Independent fired off a leader full of purple prose: Murdoch's editors "take his shilling and dance to his tune, wiggling their hips to entertain foreign potentates sitting on their divans." On Thursday a Guardian leader argued that it is a delusion to think that "editorial independence" exists in any corner of the Murdoch empire and the only thing to do is to "work to ensure that he owns less." Hugo Young wrote magisterially that the trouble with Murdoch's "proprietorship of the word" is that "at a certain point, it becomes disqualified from having the words it owns believed. Even the most honourable purveyors of these words are degraded by the environment in which they appear. Nothing under the Murdoch imprint is really to be trusted any more."

Over at the Murdoch imprint, Stothard defended himself against Mirsky's charges of appeasing China. The Times had, after all, supported Patten's line on Hong Kong (and, he might have added, the Sunday Times serialised Jonathan Dimbleby's book on Patten). Meanwhile in a display of his own independence, Charles Moore ran a letter from Sir Christopher Chataway claiming that the Telegraph's Eurosceptic line was laid down by Canadian owner Conrad Black. The next day brought a robust reply from Black, reaffirming his sceptical views about further British integration into Europe and his right to express them "as a British resident, taxpayer and voter" (unlike you-know-who), but not addressing the question of whether he was entitled to lay down the editorial line.

On Saturday 7th March came the triumphant finale: crowed over on the front pages of the Telegraph, Guardian and Independent; fairly if drily reported on the front page of The Times; deemed worthy of notice even by the Financial Times. Murdoch had made an "unreserved apology" to Chris Patten, and paid him substantial damages. The allegations that his book was boring were "untrue and ought never to have been made." However, Murdoch went on to express "total confidence" in the talents of Eddie Bell and Adrian Bourne-the very people who had "screwed it up."

now it is Monday 9th March, and Prospect (owned by a range of independent investors-all contributions gratefully received) goes to press tomorrow. Although I have talked privately to some of the main participants, there are many details still to emerge. But here are six rapid, personal, interim conclusions.

First, mixed motives. The motives of most people involved are mixed: personal rivalries, the interests of the paper you edit, grasping a chance for free publicity all play a part, next to high principles. (When I say "most," I include myself. How many times have I mentioned my books already?) But motives are always mixed. The motives of war heroes are mixed. People became dissidents in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for a wide range of personal reasons. So also with the German resistance to Hitler or dissidents in communist China today. This is humanly, biographically interesting, but it does not disqualify the stance people take. It does not mean that everyone is equally right or wrong. What matters is who is right, not why they do it.

Second, the "authors' revolt." As a HarperCollins author, I was revolted and have, in a modest way, revolted. As a historian of the present, I conclude that there was no authors' revolt. A number of authors were telephoned by the Telegraph, Guardian and Independent. They expressed various degrees of outrage, some concentrating on the personal loss of their editor, some on the larger issues. Some said they were thinking of leaving HarperCollins; others, even in a first reaction over the telephone, worded it more cautiously. This was then headlined "authors' revolt"; the names and quotes were recycled over several days.

My impression, from talking to fellow HarperCollins authors, is that few of them were in touch with each other; there was no spontaneous co-ordinated action. I telephoned one of the writers reported in the Independent to have called for an authors' meeting. He said he knew nothing about it. Of course, it might then have become a case of the Wenlock Jakes. Readers may recall the correspondent in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, who arrives in a Balkan capital under the misapprehension that there is a revolution there. Finding everything quiet, he none the less files incandescent copy about barricades in the streets, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he writes, and so on. As a result, panic spreads and within a few days there is a revolution. But I don't think an "authors' revolt" occurred even in this way, although the press will certainly have concentrated the minds of HarperCollins authors.

Third, HarperCollins. So far as I can judge, not many HarperCollins authors have left immediately. This is understandable-particularly for those who have long backlists with the publisher. I am told, for example, that Patrick O'Brian, the historical novelist, has 18 titles with HarperCollins. (I should add that I myself have left the paperback of The File, which was already in production, with HarperCollins.) None the less, the credibility of HarperCollins will not simply be restored by the apology to Patten. Authors may not leave immediately, but they will do so with their next book, especially if Stuart Proffitt soon raises his editorial banner at another house. Of course credibility might be restored overnight if Murdoch were to sell the firm to another owner, as he tried to do last year to Bertelsmann. (But might we then start worrying about its books on Germany rather than China?) In the meantime, Eddie Bell and Adrian Bourne must depart.

Fourth, dealing with dictators. Far more important than any local publishing implications is the way we, in the "free world," deal with dictatorships-especially the largest one left. It matters terribly that people in China were deprived of independent, critical news coverage because Murdoch kicked the BBC World Service off his Star cable channel, to appease Beijing. It matters a great deal if Murdoch has influenced The Times's reporting on China.

The problem is a familiar one. Dictatorships, especially single party states, have a structural advantage in dealing with capitalist democracies because they can exploit the diversity, pluralism and competition which is at the heart of our system. They can divide and rule. This works at all levels. It works at the level of individual journalists, authors and scholars, many of whom soften their criticisms in order to get the next visa or an exclusive interview with a senior leader. (Those of us who worked behind the iron curtain used to call this "the visa syndrome.") It works at the level of individual media or whole media groups competing for journalistic access or commercial concessions, as News Corp does. And it works, alas, with governments. In the same week that the HarperCollins story broke we learned of Robin Cook's frustration as the EU's agreed stance on human rights violations was undermined by France and Germany, pursuing their own trading interests in China. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said with stunning frankness that only a superpower could talk about both trade and human rights. He chose trade.

Of course, no one expects journalists, newspapers, corporations or governments to talk only about human rights. In each case there is a balance to be struck. But common stances are vital if dictatorships are not to divide and rule. And the balance struck by an individual newspaper should be different from that struck by a corporation-even, perhaps especially, the corporation which owns it. The Times, in particular, now has some ground to make up. Today (9th March) it carries a leader praising the modernising intentions of Chinese prime minister-to-be, Zhu Rongji. Well, fair enough: reforms from above are important, too. But tomorrow the leading Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng will be speaking in Oxford and on Wednesday he meets the foreign secretary. We should watch closely to see how The Times covers that.

Fifth, government and the proprietors. The affair raises questions about government regulation of the media. It would be na?ve to imagine that other proprietors are incapable of behaving as Murdoch has done. But Murdoch is a clear case of a proprietor who (a) is given to intervening directly in editorial policy, (b) has a large market share, and (c) has worldwide media interests of very diverse kinds, which interact. The dog that did not bark in this night was, of course, the government; New Labour has apparently come to a mutually agreeable accommodation with Murdoch. When a question was asked about the affair on the BBC's Question Time, a junior minister broadly defended Murdoch's conduct.

The media regulation issues, which I lack the expertise to comment on, are complex. What should be the percentage limit for total media market share? Is it true that Labour privately promised Murdoch to raise the figure from 21 to 25 per cent? What about the cross-financing to subsidise his price-cutting on The Times? What about the puffing of Sky TV in the Murdoch press? Also, Murdoch will soon have a big stake in the main technological gate-keeper (the black box) for digital satellite broadcasting, through which will also flow all terrestrial channels. What are the dangers there? What if the Chinese ask him to ditch a BBC documentary on corruption in China?

Paddy Ashdown has written to Margaret Beckett asking that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission look again at whether the commitment to editorial integrity, given in 1981 when Murdoch bought The Times, has been respected. This pressure from the Liberal Democrats is all to the good. Labour, by contrast, has been mealy-mouthed out of political self-interest.

Sixth, us and the proprietors. For us-men and women of the public word, members of (pejoratively) the chattering classes or (pretentiously) the intelligentsia-the most pressing question is how we deal with proprietors. How does ownership affect what we write, say and think? How do we defend standards and independence? One of the lessons I have learned from studying dictatorships is how deeply, but also how subtly our conduct is influenced by our circumstances. Lech Walesa once commented "What you think depends on where you sit." Over the past few weeks it has seemed true to an alarming degree. Distinguished and independent-minded though their authors are, the thrust of the commentaries in our newspapers has been almost entirely predictable. You only needed to know where it appeared in order to know where it would lead.

When I think back on conversations with friends and acquaintances-many of whom I know to be friends with each other and to share the same basic values-I find that their "take" was crucially influenced by one factor: whether or not they worked for something owned by Murdoch. Those who did not work for Murdoch were full of red-blooded indignation, incredulity and not a little Schadenfreude. Those who did work for anything owned by Murdoch were embarrassed, uneasy or outright distressed. But they also found arguments which made it, well, just a little less bad. Really, you know, the whole thing was just a frightful cock-up by Bell and Bourne. And of course Conrad Black wouldn't tolerate anti-Israeli commentary in the Telegraph, would he? Or: "Well, of course we've all taken Murdoch's shilling. But we were just saying here that if you were really consistent you wouldn't listen to [Murdoch-owned] Fox radio or watch a Fox film..."

Whereas in dictatorships the crucial locus of unfreedom is the state, in capitalist democracies the main locus of unfreedom-or at least of limited freedom-is the workplace. That means, for most people, also the single employer. The constraint is powerful both because status and life-possibilities in a consumer society depend so directly on the job you do and how much you are paid to do it and, on the other hand, because you can lose your job if your employer doesn't like what you are doing. The threat of unemployment makes for corporate discipline.

In the extreme, this produces individual behaviour which does recall the way people collaborate with dictatorships. An Austrian author rang me to say that the way Bell and Bourne had tried to anticipate their master's wishes reminded him of the vorauseilendes Gehorsam (anticipatory obedience) of middle-level functionaries in Nazi times. A Croatian writer said: "That's exactly what publishers did in the old Yugoslavia. They never told you they wouldn't publish the book for political reasons; they always said it was too boring, specialised, long or whatever."

All this led Ben Pimlott to talk, on BBC radio's Moral Maze, of "corporate totalitarianism." But this is moral hyperbole, not just because no one involved is going to be sent to the gulag, but also for the simple reason that in a totalitarian state, with a monopoly of the public word, there is nowhere else to go if you are censored-whereas here, Patten immediately takes his book to Macmillan; HarperCollins authors make their views known in the Telegraph, the Observer or Prospect. In this sense, Libby Purves was right.

The trouble is that what we saw in the newspapers over this episode was a rather crude version of free speech, more like party politics than a truly independent press. Bipartisan politics is a system of limited adversarial mendacity, in which the Conservatives put one part of the truth and Labour the other part. The Telegraph and The Times were like two competing parties. If you put the two versions together, you can form your own opinion. This episode will have raised readers' consciousness about the influence of proprietors on what they read. But a free quality press should be more than this.

Is it, then, only the papers with genuinely independent ownership that we can really trust, as-predictably-the Guardian and Observer seemed to be arguing? Well, that independence is very important, although newspapers can still succumb to other kinds of constraint and taboo-ideological ones, for example. But realistically we have to acknowledge that for the foreseeable future most of the places in which our words are published in Britain will be owned by a proprietor-whether an individual tycoon, a national company or a multinational corporation. The question is not whether we have to live with them, but how to live with them.

These owners have interests, as well as personal views. Without betraying the content of a personal conversation, I can testify that Conrad Black has on at least one occasion toyed with the idea of influencing the Telegraph's editorial line on Europe-although not in a more Eurosceptical direction. However, I can also testify that Charles Moore successfully defended his editorial independence and the (in my view short-sighted) Eurosceptic line of the paper. Any journalist who has a proprietor has a problem. But clearly anyone who has Murdoch as a proprietor has a particular problem. Under him it is especially difficult to be a strong, independent-minded editor.

The conclusion to which Hugo Young apparently wants to lead us is that none of us should ever write for anything owned by Murdoch again. I think this is wrong. In fact almost the opposite is true. If we want a healthy culture of free speech in this country, then we should all write more for the Murdoch press; we simply cannot allow that huge tract of reading public to go by default, while we preen ourselves on our perfect moral purity.

The mistake is epitomised in the clich? "taking Murdoch's shilling." Someone who took the king's shilling signed up to serve in an army and obey the orders of His Majesty's officers. Someone who writes for the Sunday Times does nothing of the kind-let alone someone who reviews a book on Byzantine iconography for the TLS. Even those who work full-time for the Murdoch press don't feel the pressures most of the time-except the commercial pressure to sell more copies. Even the editors have much more independence than you would suppose from the recent revelations. That is true of HarperCollins, too. Otherwise Stuart Proffitt could not have worked there for so many years. Would Ben Pimlott have published three books with what he now calls a "corporate totalitarianism"? Would I?

But where editorial independence and standards are under pressure, the onus is on us to support them. Protest in a crisis is important; that has happened in this case. Political pressure on the proprietor, like that offered by Paddy Ashdown, is also important-and we must call on the government to do more than it has so far dared. Peer group pressure is important, too. We have already seen The Times hurrying to restore its damaged credibility. Let us stiffen their sinews and strengthen their backbones. The more of us who write in The Times or the Sunday Times, critically, independently, outspokenly, about censorship, pluralism and China, the stronger they will be, and the richer will be our common culture of free speech. We cannot realistically expect to criticise a proprietor directly in his own paper. That we have to do elsewhere. But to write freely about everything else-that we should not only expect but demand.

It may seem paradoxical to start by saying that I am leaving Murdoch-owned HarperCollins and end by saying that I would happily write more for the Murdoch-owned press. This is a complicated liberal position, but genuinely liberal positions often are complicated. It is, after all, a complicated world.