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 conclusionsby Timothy Garton-Ash / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
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…