Publishers and writers are inveterate enemies. It is a combat decreed by nature, like the eternal war between dogs and cats, oil and vinegar, teenage girls and their mothers. Any real writer, no matter how mercenary or corrupt, cares something for the craft that publishers regard as at best a pretext for marketing (much as television networks think of programs as the intervals between commercials). Even a Washington Post reporter must occasionally want to write an honest story that does not end up on the editorial spike, while the most erudite publisher can scarcely help resenting every penny squandered for the advancement of literature.
In the early days of commercial publishing, when some writers might have claimed to be gentlemen, few publishers pretended to be anything but tradesmen. Alexander Pope, to show his contempt, administered a laxative to a famous London publisher, and Samuel Johnson was fond of telling the story of the publisher who married his printer’s devil—a pretty girl, once the ink was scrubbed off. The first Macmillan, according to legend, had to walk half-way across Britain to start the career that made his fortune, but his grandson Harold became not only Prime Minister, but a Tory wet enough to raise the taxes on every man who made an honest living.
In the earlier part of this century, publishers were still not quite respectable, including the press lords whose pretensions G.K. Chesterton so enjoyed deflating. Chesterton lost his job at a Cadbury paper after he published a poem that included the lines:
Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least;
Cocoa is a cad and coward.
Cocoa is a vulgar beast.
Cadbury’s rivals in Britain and America—the Beaverbrooks and Hearsts—had the same thin skin and indifference to fact. For media magnates, the press is not an instrument for disseminating truth, it is an engine of power. The great object in any industry, whether it is computer software, cocaine, or publishing, is to secure a monopoly, and the great newspaper chains of the United States—Gannett, in particular—have dedicated themselves, with singleness of purpose and contempt for legal niceties, to the task of ensuring that every city in America is a one-newspaper town.
The implications for American conservatives and other dissidents are obvious. Lack of competition in business inevitably entails ideological rigidity, and since the media monopolies are an important part of the establishment, the managers who control the great newspapers and publishing houses take a dim view of reactionaries and radicals who criticize the regime. Our local Gannett paper, after buying up its rival (a monthly city magazine), is now in a position to treat the old newspaperman’s ideals of facts and fairness like a rare port, something to be brought out on ceremonial occasions and served by the thimbleful. Propaganda and slander are the beer and pizza of the chain newspaper and the network news. Ask Richard Jewell.
Still, even the great newspaper chains must compete with each other, with electronic media, with magazines, and with the processed book-products that make their way onto the bestseller lists. A dissident book can occasionally pop up on a bestseller list, blinking in the bright lights and trying vainly to make small talk with its neighbors. These freaks of the industry are becoming rarer, as competition disappears. Some of the media chains, after all, do own magazines; others publish books; some own television stations. In fact, Ted Turner has wrapped his tentacles around dozens of media conglomerates. But even Mr. Turner and his wife (former star of soft-porn flicks like Barbarella) are no match for the greatest press lord to date: Rupert Murdoch.
Mr. Turner, on the grounds that it takes one to know one, has called Mr. Murdoch another “Adolf Hitler” (which puts him in company with Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Pat Buchanan, and the editors of this magazine), but like Turner himself, Murdoch is more the two-bit thug multiplied a billion Times. Far from planning world conquest, these great men dream of nothing bolder than topless girls on page three or slugging it out over who can dumb down the public faster. “Murdoch’s credo,” writes Stephen Glover in the London Telegraph, “is to give people what they want,” and his quarrel with Ted Turner is really over plans to set up a 24-hour news service in competition with CNN.
Even to list (much less describe) Mr. Murdoch’s holdings might take up all the space of this magazine. He owns newspapers, publishing houses, magazines, television stations, and satellite networks. Here in the United States, his print holdings include the book publishing conglomerate HarperCollins, the New York Post, and the Weekly Standard. He owns the FOX television network and more individual American television stations than anyone, American or Australian.
On any one day of the week, Murdoch’s employees may pretend to take an Independent line, but Mr. Murdoch, like any owner and master, calls the shots whenever one of his private interests is involved. Of course, Murdoch is a shy and unassuming person, a Uriah Heep among media moguls, and when it came out that he had dined with Speaker Gingrich a few years ago, he categorically denied that it had anything to do with Gingrich’s HarperCollins contract, much less with any of the federal regulatory problems that the Murdoch empire was facing. A man with so many claims on his time, he explained, simply could not attend to the details of a single book deal.
In February, however, it turned out that Mr. Murdoch does take an interest in some books. According to stories published in the Telegraph, Murdoch squelched the publication of a HarperCollins book written by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. Patten had been paid an advance of £125,000, but HarperCollins executives pulled the plug on the deal, claiming the book did not meet expectations. “The material . . . does not live up to the original outline,” explained Adrian Bourne, managing director of HarperCollins’ trade book division. However, Patten’s editor at HarperCollins, Stuart Proffitt, had described the first six chapters as “inspiring, brilliant, and important.” Reluctant to support the firm’s official story, Proffitt was handed a gag order. He promptly quit.
Murdoch now says that he views the deal as a mistake. He told the London Times, which he owns, that his publishers “screwed up” in accepting the book, which Murdoch dislikes for personal reasons: “I have always been a bit negative about [Patten] ever since I thought he was undermining Thatcher. And I think he made a bit of a fool of himself out there after suddenly discovering democracy at the end of a 100-year rule.”
Taken at face value, Murdoch’s explanation of his behavior reveals him as petty, political, and irrational: petty in letting his personal feelings dictate an irresponsible business decision, political in putting his “loyalty” to Mrs. Thatcher above the credibility of his firm, and irrational in refusing to see the difference between Hong Kong’s 100 years as a crown colony and her emerging status as a possession of what may be the most brutal and repressive dictatorship in the world.
Murdoch, often described as a conservative, has been less than consistent in his loyalty to the Baroness Thatcher and her party. These days, he is counting on Tony Blair, whom his Sun newspaper supported in the last election, to protect him from the wrath of both Tory and Labour MPs who accuse Murdoch of undercutting his newspaper rivals in a bid to make the U.K. a one-newspaper country. Murdoch’s critics charge his company with using the profits from his BSkyB satellite television network to subsidize the London Times‘ “predatory price strategy.” Mr. Blair, caught between the idealism of his antimonopoly campaign rhetoric and the boundless wrath of KRM (as Keith Rupert Murdoch is known to his friends), is facing a defection of his own MPs, who are angry with Blair’s government for refusing to back a House of Lords amendment to the “Competition Bill.” Mr. Blair’s ministers insist that the socalled Murdoch amendment, aimed at curbing the Times‘ pricing strategy, is unnecessary, but a better word might be inconvenient.
Murdoch, meanwhile, is fighting a battle on several fronts: predatory pricing in the U.K., reports of declining earnings around the world, and an investigation into irregularities in his News Corporation’s tax records. Add to these woes, now, a string of writers making public defections from HarperCollins. Timothy Carton Ash has already left, and abandoning the Murdoch ship is suddenly the literary rage. “One is appalled to think,” Booker Prize-winner Penelope Fitzgerald told the Telegraph, “that someone can buy a publisher like a soap factory and then scrap the part they don’t want.” Doris Lessing finds the affair shocking: “It is so shocking I can’t find words for it.” (If Lessing’s dyslexia proves to be permanent, perhaps HarperCollins is better off without her.)
This is, of course, not the only occasion on which an author has been disciplined for writing an inconvenient book. In fact, at almost the same time that Murdoch was cutting Chris Patten, ABC News forced veteran military reporter Bob Zelnick to leave the network for signing a contract with the conservative Regnery Publishing company to do a book on Al Gore. Zelnick’s reputation for candor and his previous Regnery book, Backfire: A Reporter’s Look at Affirmative Action, apparently alarmed ABC.
What has many literati upset, however, is the ugly duplicity of Murdoch and company. While HarperCollins executives were cooking up a cover story (the memo has been leaked) explaining their objections to a book they had not read, crusading reporters at the Telegraph were uncovering a more practical basis for Murdoch’s concern. The media Hitler, it seems, is very sensitive to pressure from the Chinese government, which detests Mr. Patten. During the months preceding the Hong Kong takeover. Patten’s outspoken criticisms of the communists made him, in the words of the Telegraph‘s Philip Johnson, “a target of abuse by the regime” which “denounced him as ‘a whore,’ a ‘criminal of a thousand antiquities,’ a ‘serpent,’ and— mysteriously—a ‘tango dancer.'” Murdoch has more than a billion pounds invested in Asian media and has openly declared (in a Tokyo speech last May) that “China is a distinctive market with distinctive social and moral values that Western companies like News Corporation must learn to abide by.” Part of the learning process involved pulling the BBC, which had been too objective in its reporting on Tiananmen Square, off of his Star TV network. Compared with the BBC, Chris Patten’s book deal is a trifle, and Murdoch’s publishing executives have apologized to Patten and promised him a settlement of an undisclosed amount.
The darker side of the picture has been the silence of the Murdoch-owned London Times. The Times‘ media editor, just after the nick of time, admitted that it was a mistake not to cover the story but denied that he had been “leant” on, insisting the whole thing was more “cock-up than conspiracy,” but other Times editors—journalists of the highest reputation—have been put in a very uncomfortable position. Henry Porter, writing in the Independent, complained that not one of four prominent columnists writing for the Times had “written a word about one of the most shameful acts of suppression in recent publishing history.”
Some, at least, of Murdoch’s British journalists have criticized their boss’s kow-towing to the Chinese communists. The Times‘ recently retired East Asia correspondent, Jonathan Mirsky, is now the newspaper’s China writer, but at a meeting of the Freedom Forum European Centre (reported by the Telegraph) he complained that “The Times has simply decided, because of Murdoch’s interests, not to cover China in a serious way.”
Murdoch’s American employees and apologists have been less forthcoming. For years we have been hearing from Manhattan conservatives about this staunch conservative immigrant who has been kind enough to enrich our impoverished culture. How they mocked the late Mike Royko for refusing to work for Murdoch at the Chicago Sun-Times. But there is no word yet on the Chris Patten scandal from John Podhoretz (Scott McConnell’s unworthy successor at the New York Post), and Bill Kristol, top dog at KRM’s Weekly Standard, has yet to deliver his bull against Patten for standing in the way of free trade with Asia. Nothing, even, from the Standard’s crusading David Frum, who has made a profession of pointing out the mote in the eye of anyone to his right.
What a conservative daisy chain: a Canadian working for an American publication owned by an Australian who takes orders from the Chinese. Anyone who thinks the Weekly Standard is not influenced by Murdoch should take a look at its February 9th cover—a cartoon almost as raunchy as the photographs in the Sun. The Standard is supposed to represent the future of the American right. Perhaps it does. After all, the Standard is the magazine equivalent of Trent Lott: owned by a foreigner, out of touch with America, working for the enemies of our country.