Roving thoughts and provocations

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Murdoch’s Chinese Adventure

Mark Terrill/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese President Jiang Zemin shaking hands with with Rupert Murdoch during a private meeting at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, November 2, 1997

During a Parliamentary hearing last week in London, the Murdochs, father and son, riveted television audiences with their combination of wide-eyed, hand-on-heart innocence (James), and long silences and “Yups” and “Nopes” (Rupert). After the elder Murdoch declared how “humbled” he was by all that had happened, he told his questioners, in effect, that he’s always played a humble role in the running of his papers: he telephoned the editor of the Sunday News of the World only twice a month, each time saying, “I’m not interfering.” Having worked for four years, from 1993 to 1997, as the East Asia editor of Murdoch’s Times, I have my doubts about this. I watched our proprietor trying to blandish and spend his way into the People’s Republic, and for some years ensure that his interests dictated the kinds of stories about China that appeared in his paper.

When I was invited to write for the Times in 1993, I told its then-editor, Peter Stothard, that Murdoch was going to invest substantially in China and would dislike my critical reporting. He assured me that Murdoch never interfered in the paper. I took the job. I was reassured when, around that time, Murdoch claimed that satellite television would be “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” Beijing expressed irritation at his comments, and before long Murdoch began investing in Chinese television and helping official media set up websites. He sold Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, one of the world’s most profitable newspapers, because its China reporting was too negative. He dropped the BBC from his satellite over Hong Kong, observing that a film it aired on Mao had angered “the people with whom I am trying to do business”; he published a hagiographic biography of Deng Xiaoping by one of his daughters, and referred to the Dalai Lama as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” Later, Murdoch broke his contract with Hong Kong’s ex-Governor, Chris Patten, whose book, which included unfavorable discussion of China’s government, was to be published by News Corp’s HarperCollins.

After several years of writing as I pleased about China for the Times, I noticed warning signs. I was told that only the business pages would report on Murdoch’s activities in China and Hong Kong. A book review by me about cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution was delayed until after my editor had lunch with the Chinese ambassador. My op-eds, invariably published in my earlier days at the Times, suddenly had to be approved by Stothard, and once that happened, I never wrote another. It was obvious to all of us: Murdoch was deeply involved in China, and our business and Beijing news pages reflected this.

By late 1996, my dispatches were often spiked, and a deskman once said to me down the phone, “I don’t know why you bother.” The Times correspondent in Beijing wrote anodyne stories (usually reporting what the official spokesmen had said at their press conferences, or what the English-language official press was saying), and invited the government official who oversaw the foreign press for bowling and drinks. When I suggested stories to him with more information or insight into what was really happening in the region, such as starving North Koreans fleeing into China, he observed that this would annoy watchful officials.

In 1997, the Times invited the board of the Chinese Communist party’s People’s Daily to a banquet in London; Prime Minister Major dropped in. Stothard was invited to Beijing and offered an interview with President Jiang Zemin. He went, but was downgraded to Vice-premier Zhu Rongji because Major had upset Beijing when he made critical comments about China’s human rights violations. Once in the presence of Zhu, Stothard angered him by inquiring about dissidents. Stothard apologized, saying that they were friends who should be able to speak to each other, and the rest of the conversation was tepid. (One of the News International employees in the room sent me a transcript and begged me not to reveal how I came to have it; he didn’t dare publish it himself but thought I might.)

When Hong Kong’s handover to China arrived in July 1997, I expected to file stories about the reaction in Hong Kong and the views of Governor Patten, whom I had been asked to cover as fully as possible when I was hired. Instead, a senior Times journalist came out to Hong Kong to write most of the stories and my pieces about the effects of the handover on people in Hong Kong were either heavily edited or not used.

A few months after the handover I retired as East Asia editor and returned to London where I was asked to become the Times China Writer–-but next to nothing by me was published. I gave an off-the record talk to Hong Kong and Chinese journalists in which I spoke frankly about Murdoch and his influence on the Times‘s China coverage. This appeared on the Internet and after some weeks I saw my name, picture, and remarks spread across the front pages of the Times rivals in London. In a long op-ed, the editor Stothard rejected my assertion that he had repeatedly rejected my stories and bowed to Murdoch. I asked to reply, but was offered only a much-edited letter to the editor (it was published, but in such an altered form that my objections had vanished, along with Stothard’s name.) The supposedly independent Times board met to discuss my allegations. Without interviewing me, they concluded there was nothing in my claims. When this news appeared on the paper’s front page I resigned.

Eventually, Murdoch’s activities in China hit a brick wall. Having spent at least $2 billion, he sold his television channels and abandoned his China venture. (Murdoch’s investments and their failures were comprehensively reviewed by Jonathan Manthorpe in his recent piece for the Vancouver Sun) In 2002, Murdoch appointed as editor of the Times another Australian, Robert Thomson, a well-respected China reporter married—like Murdoch—to a Chinese woman; normal China coverage resumed. Peter Stothard became editor of News International’s Times Literary Supplement. Thomson is now the Managing Editor of News Corps’ Wall Street Journal; last week in London Murdoch said he calls him every day.

A final irony: in 1989 I was reporting from Beijing for The Observer. On the night of the June 4 killings, I was being beaten by the Peoples’ Armed Police under the portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. At great risk to himself, Thomson, then Beijing correspondent of The Financial Times, dragged me away and led me out of the square. Two years later I was expelled from China, and two years after that I went to work for Rupert Murdoch’s Times.

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