News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch continued to spar Monday with foes of his proposed takeover of Dow Jones & Co. who have contended that he would compromise the journalistic integrity of the Wall Street Journal.
In a letter to members of the Bancroft family, which controls Journal parent Dow Jones, Murdoch wrote that "maintaining the heritage of independence and journalistic integrity" at the second-largest U.S. newspaper "would be of utmost importance to me and to News Corp."
Murdoch also pledged to expand the premier business publication's distribution overseas and to take a Bancroft representative onto the board of News Corp., the media company he controls with about 40% of the voting shares.
Interfering with Dow Jones news reporting, Murdoch wrote, would breach a long-nourished public trust and "would simply be bad business."
The letter came two days ahead of a Dow Jones board meeting slated for Wednesday, where directors are expected to discuss the $5-billion offer made by News Corp. last month.
So far, questions about Murdoch's independence have centered on his own record in China. Late last week, the Journal's Pulitzer Prize-winning team of correspondents in the world's most-populous country wrote to the Bancroft family to decry Murdoch's "well-documented history of making editorial decisions in order to advance his business interests in China."
The seven joint letter-writers cited a 2001 speech by Murdoch's son James, who now runs News Corp.'s British Sky Broadcasting but at the time was an executive at Star TV, the company's Asian satellite TV service.
James called the Falun Gong movement "dangerous" and an "apocalyptic cult," echoing the Chinese government line, they wrote. At the time, he was accused of trying to cozy up to the government to further his business agenda.
Their letter follows the public denunciation of the proposed takeover by Jim Ottaway Jr., who owns 6.2% of Dow Jones shares. Ottaway, a former Journal publisher, accused Murdoch of supporting China's human rights violations and of yielding to government censorship.
Another Journal Pulitzer winner in China sent an earlier letter protesting the proposed deal to the Bancrofts. Ian Johnson, who is now on a Nieman Foundation fellowship at Harvard, faulted Murdoch for taking the BBC off of a pay TV service aimed at the mainland because it was critical of China. Johnson also denounced News Corp.'s HarperCollins for backing out of publishing a book by the last British governor of Hong Kong, who had faulted Beijing in the past.
In response to Ottaway's criticisms of Murdoch's editorial practices, one of Murdoch's top editors sent a letter Friday to the former publisher defending his boss' integrity. Times of London Editor Robert Thomson included editorials by his paper that had been critical of China's current regime.
Johnson said in an interview that it was relatively easy to be hard on China now because outside media were limited there.
"What I would be more worried about is five years down the road, when they open up and they want to know are you friend to China or not a friend?" Johnson said. Murdoch, he said, "would be willing to subvert the integrity of the paper to do a deal."
One previous blowup over the Times of London's China coverage came in March 1998, when veteran Hong Kong correspondent Jonathan Mirsky, then writing for the Times on retainer, accused his employer of kowtowing to the Chinese government.
"The Times has simply decided, because of Murdoch's interests, not to cover China in a serious way," Mirsky said at what was supposed to have been an off-the-record session with other journalists. His comments made it onto the Internet and then into several British papers.
Peter Stothard, then editor of the Times, vehemently denied the charge, saying: "I have never taken an editorial decision to suit Mr. Murdoch's interests. Nor have I ever been asked to." Days later, Mirsky quit the paper.
In an interview last week, Mirsky said that after May 1997, when Stothard went to Beijing to meet China's vice premier, the Times sharply curtailed publication of Mirsky's articles in the lead up to the July 1, 1997, handover of Hong Kong to China.
"When Murdoch wants to interfere, he will," Mirsky said. "If there's supposed to be a China wall [separating corporate executives from editorial decisions], he'll ignore it."