WASHINGTON - Let me see if I can write this column without getting sued. It has to do with my old pal Lee Kuan Yew, who prefers to be called "senior minister" rather than dictator of Singapore, and whose family members have been doing exceedingly well lately.
In kowtowing to the Lee family, the Bloomberg News Service- the feisty, aggressive newcomer to coverage of global finance on cable and computers - has just demeaned itself and undermined the cause of a free online press.
Early last month, Patrick Smith, a Bloomberg columnist, dared to take note of the elevation of Ho Ching, the senior minister's daughter-in-law, to head Temesek, the powerful state-owned investment company. Her husband, Mr. Lee's son, is already deputy prime minister and finance minister, on a fast track to the top; Mr. Lee's other son is CEO of Singapore Telecom. Mr. Lee himself, at 78, is chairman of the Government Investment Corp.
I have not read Mr. Smith's story because it has been expunged from the Bloomberg Web site, digitally erased from the mind of man. But evidently it annoyed some members of Mr. Lee's family, who are not known to lose huge libel suits that come before local judges.
Last week, Bloomberg issued a statement of abject apology. "We recognize that this article was understood to mean" that the appointment of Mr. Lee's daughter-in-law had been made "not on merit, but in order to indulge the interests of the Lee family, or for some other corrupt motive relating to the promotion of the Lee family's interests." Not only that, but "Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (the latter is the appointee's husband, the senior minister's rising son) had procured the appointment of Mme. Ho Ching and were therefore guilty of nepotism."
Bloomberg News, its corporate head cracking the floor in a classic kowtow, went on to "admit and acknowledge that these allegations are false and completely without foundation. We unreservedly apologize ... for the distress and embarrassment caused." The media company offered to pay compensation for damages to avert a libel lawsuit.
A spokesman for the prime minister put in place to keep the seat warm for Mr. Lee's son (Wait. I take that back, unreservedly. Start again.) A spokesman for the aggrieved prime minister quoted lawyers saying "that by publishing the article without exercising due care, Bloomberg and Patrick Smith had acted maliciously."
In preparing this profoundly respectful column, I acted with the due-est of care by calling the senior minister in Singapore, an island I cannot visit because I like to chew gum and don't want to risk a caning for it.
Mr. Lee sent word through an ambassador that he saw "no point" in talking to me because he had had "nothing to do" with the Ho Ching appointment. (Besides, not long ago he sent me an autographed copy of his autobiography and I failed to plug it. His pique is understandable.)
Mr. Smith, the author of the never-to-be-accessed article, is said by a Bloomberg spokesman to be "an outside columnist, not a staff member." (How's that for standing by your man?) He is a veteran Far Eastern correspondent with a fine reputation, having worked in Tokyo and Hong Kong for the International Herald Tribune.
Thereby hangs a tale. In 1994 The IHT published an article about Mr. Lee's son that the old man thought imputed nepotism; when Mr. Lee sued, the Trib (owned by The New York Times and Washington Post) cravenly caved and settled for $400,000. Some of us took loud exception, and I doubt that such a sellout of principle will happen again. The New York Times, which willingly corrects itself when in error, does not settle libel charges for money. Never.
Autocratic regimes professing to be democracies have been known to use their judiciary systems to jail or bankrupt dissidents and intimidate resident reporters. Electronic media professing to practice journalism have been known to trade their integrity for global access. Where is the greater corruption?
I tried to reach the CEO of Bloomberg, Lex Fenwick, but he dove under his desk. The founder, one Michael Bloomberg, is no longer with the firm and left no forwarding address.
William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.