Poor Rupert. I just read with no small delight that über-agent Andrew Wylie has accused HarperCollins (a Rupert Murdoch possession) of acting in an “unusually shrill and punitive” way toward authors. Much to my added delight, he managed to connect HarperCollins’ “shrill and punitive” behavior with Rupert Murdoch and the current hacking scandal in England.
Speaking to the BBC, Wylie was asked if he thought the present brouhaha in England, involving criminal collusion between Rupert’s NewsCorp and an apparently corrupt Metropolitan Police and bunch of feckless politicians—don’t you love it?—might lead to other NewsCorp companies being examined, including HarperCollins. Wylie said: “Yes, it will focus attention on all parts of the business and people will perhaps turn on some lights in rooms that have been left dark previously and look more closely at what is profitable and what is not and what is proper behaviour and what isn’t.”
Wylie declined to give specifics concerning the publisher’s alleged abuses of authors, or what Rupert’s role might have been in such boorishness, so I thought I’d turn on a light or two in some of those dark rooms.
A few years ago I ran a nonprofit that provided help to writers in exile. I mentioned this briefly in a previous blog. One of the exiled writers we worked with was Er Tai Gao, the Chinese writer, artist, and dissident. Gao first got cross-ways with the authorities in China when, as a young man, he wrote an essay titled “On Beauty,” in which he criticized socialist realism. For his trouble, he spent three years at hard labor in a camp on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in far western China, where three-fourths of the 2000-plus inmates died of disease and starvation.
Despite the experience, Gao had a hard time not saying what he thought, and so for the next 30 years, he was constantly in and out of trouble. During the Tiananmin protests, at a time when, for once, he was keeping his head down, Gao was arrested once again and thrown in prison for nearly six months, this time simply because the authorities assumed he had to be up to something. His wife had no idea where he was, or even if he was alive.
On his release, Gao and his wife decided it was finally time to clear out of town. They escaped to Hong Kong, and eventually made their way to the U.S. At this point we stepped in to provide support while Gao completed his memoir of his years in the Chinese gulag, In Search of My Homeland. When it was complete, we arranged to have the memoir translated into English, then shopped it around.
To my surprise, HarperCollins bought the book. I knew that Rupert owned HarperCollins and I knew that Rupert’s NewsCorp had huge and hugely profitable business interests in China and that back in 1998 Rupert had even pulled the plug on a memoir by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten because Patten was critical of the very Chinese regime with which Rupert had such a cozy and profitable relationship. As we all know so well, Rupert’s a staunch supporter of Republican politicians in this country who can always be relied on to spout the party line about the joys of a free market and the threat of creeping socialism, but I wasn’t so naïve as to think that Rupert, who also owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, would allow ideology to trump profit. Cozy up to thugs and tyrants, and communist thugs and tyrants at that? No problem, if there’s a buck to be made . . .. (You can read more about Rupert’s warm and profitable relationship with the regime in China in a June 26, 2007 New York Times article).
So why’d HarperCollins buy Gao’s memoir? I assume because the editor who bought the book is a man of integrity with impeccable taste; he knew a good book when he saw one. Certainly I was amazed by his courage. Of course, if we’re to believe Rupert’s protestations in his recent testimony before Parliament, he’s completely unaware of what goes on in the trenches in his various companies; certainly he’s not to blame for all that hacking that’s been going on, for example. Gosh, no one told him! It’s not his fault!
So perhaps the folks at HarperCollins figured Rupert wouldn’t notice or care that they were publishing a memoir by a very astute critic of the regime he’s in bed with.
But there are lots of ways tyrants can subvert our freedoms. After Gao’s book was published, HarperCollins essentially let the book die. No marketing, no nothing. Nada. After just two years, it went out of print, a stunningly rapid demise, it seemed to me.
I was shocked. Gao wasn’t. He explained that in China, most censorship is self-censorship, the most effective kind. But even then, sometimes something slips through, and then you realize, whoops, so you scramble to cover it up before the authorities catch on and you end up in a labor camp on the edge of the Taklamakan.
But then Gao’s memoir never did catch on with American readers, at least in part, I believe, because HarperCollins did nothing to promote the book, and thus Rupert’s beloved free market exerted its own form of implacable censorship. Low sales? Kill it.
In England, we see at work in l’affaire de Rupert an unhealthy alliance of business, police, and politicians working in concert to undermine a fundamental principle of democracy, the right of a private citizen to privacy, all for the sake of a buck. We’re shocked, shocked, I say, by what Rupert’s been up to in England, and no doubt we’ll be even more shocked if it turns out he’s been up to the same things here — quelle surprise! But in China such collusion of business, police (and military), and politicians is business as usual. It could be that Rupert’s become so accustomed to the routine subversion of democratic principles for big profit in China that he lost sight of the fact that in the West, we still at least pretend to value such things.
There was certainly nothing shrill or punitive in HarperCollins’ treatment of Gao’s book. But for that, perhaps, it’s no less chilling . . ..