Murdoch’s Serial Exploitation

Simpson Book Deal Recalls Ripper Fiasco

Staying with the subject of the Christian book industry, the (slightly old) news that Rupert Murdoch has shied away from profiting from O.J. Simpson’s bizarre “hypothetical confession” brings to mind an earlier example of the Digger’s interest in sensational murder, and how that affected the running of the respected publishing house of Collins here in the UK.

Collins had been founded in the early nineteenth century as a religious publisher in Scotland, although it also sold secular books, and in the late twentieth century its Fount imprint was particularly known for publishing the works of CS Lewis. Under Murdoch from 1988, Collins joined Harpers to become HarperCollins. Christian Bookseller magazine (December 2000) contains an interesting article by Robin Baird-Smith, who has been a significant figure in British religious publishing for many years, and who worked for Collins in early 1980s:

If you are running a religious book list as part of a large corporation, you are in the last analysis a small part of someone else’s global plan…[Y]ou are also subject to censorship, and outside editorial control. At HarperCollins we were owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owned the Sun newspaper. One day I received a call from the features editor of that newspaper saying that they were going to publish in serial form the memoirs of Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) and he wanted Collins to publish the book. That was the moment when what it meant to be part of a corporation really sunk in and I decided that I had to leave.

The context at the time was distaste over “chequebook journalism” in the wake of the arrest and trial of Peter Sutcliffe, who had murdered thirteen women and attacked seven others between 1975 and 1980; notoriously, the Chief Constable of Yorkshire, Ronald Gregory, reportedly pocketed £40,000 from the (non-Murdoch) Mail on Sunday for his account of the investigation (this was particularly upsetting given that it had taken the police so long to stop the serial killer). However, the planned memoirs of Sonia never materialised, as a report in the Guardian earlier this year explained:

…despite the grim details emerging from court number one [at the Old Bailey in 1981] it was chequebook journalism that had most people talking. And the feeding frenzy was about to climax with the race to sign up Sutcliffe’s wife, Sonia…The popular estimate of its worth at the time was £1m. Unfortunately, she had proved to be not very sporting. The door [to her home] was mostly kept locked while an average of 30 to 40 media personnel were camped outside waiting for something to happen. But it had opened for the Daily Mail and again for the News of the World [the Sun’s Sunday edition], led by its newly-appointed editor, Barry Askew, whose starting bid was a paltry £80,000.

…Askew claims to have been given an unlimited chequebook by Murdoch in his attempt to the answer the Big Question – did Sonia know or suspect her husband was the Yorkshire Ripper? (“The answer is no, so far as I’m aware,” Askew says.) But returning to the old NoW’s offices in Bouverie Street in the second week of May 1981, he learned that “suddenly the coffers clanged shut”. He was left in the lurch, he says. Murdoch had got uncharacteristic cold feet after the Queen revealed her “sense of distaste” over chequebook journalism. “I remember Rupert saying something like, ‘They’ll pass a law against you’.”

NoW assistant editor at the time, Stuart Kuttner, now the paper’s managing editor, wonders if Sonia would ever have signed to tell her story. “The word she used a lot was ‘averse’. She was averse to entering into any deal with the press.”

The Press Council went on to conclude that newspapers should not make payments to those close to criminals or close to their victims. Of course, the Council had no authority beyond the British press, but had Murdoch taken the general spirit of its advice to heart he might have avoided some embarrassment now.