Does history merely repeat itself instead of teaching us anything? Based on business news about movers and shakers one could deduce that many corporate executives just don’t get it and never will.
After the debacle of 2008 when many financial CEO’s were caught in the proverbial headlights, you would think that a tough lesson would have been taught – and learned. Instead even Teflon-coated Warren Buffet decided that his power, authority and standing in the world were enough to allow him to initially stonewall the public about his executive Dave Sokol’s purchase of Lubrizol stock. Not to be outdone Rupert Murdoch has raised the bar even higher.
In a scant two weeks his empire, headed by the subtly named The News Corporation, has experienced what many would not wish on their worst corporate rival. After approximately four years of an on-again, off-again Scotland Yard investigation of phone hacking by News of the World tabloid, that paper has folded, Murdoch’s attempt to acquire the remaining interest in British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) has been aborted, and a slew of his corporate executives have been arrested, resigned or otherwise had their reputations besmirched. Rebekah Brooks the CEO of News International, the parent of the late News of the World resigned in disgrace, after two attempts at resignation that were not accepted by Murdoch. Also, Les Hinton, publisher of the Wall Street Journal tendered his resignation the same day.
The details of the outlandish accusations are certainly important but how they were handled by Murdoch is equally important and instructive. For a “media” guy, you would think he would know how to handle as big a story as this. Instead, up until yesterday we heard nothing from Murdoch – and then when we did, we heard the hrrumphing of a corporate big-wig instead of the measured pronouncements of a savvy media executive. Last week Murdoch flew to England from the U.S. Very quickly News of the World was closed, after a 168 year life. Yesterday he told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal that the matter was handled “extremely well in every way possible”. He further stated (apparently referring to his upcoming testimony before Parliament’s select committee on culture, media and sport on July 19th at which initially he and his son, James, declined to appear) that he was eager to address things said in Parliament some of which “are total lies”. Finally, he refuted the allegation that he might spin off his newspaper operations into a separate company as “total rubbish”. He did visit the family of Milly Dowler, the thirteen year old who was killed and whose phone was hacked; and extended apologies to the family. This last weekend he placed full page apology ads in British newspapers.
What kind of media executive fails so miserably in handling a business crisis like this? Who leaves a yawning time gap of two weeks before stating anything? If we assume the complete innocence of a CEO, we would then expect that leader to dig for the truth and let the public know immediately. Silence can only foster the impression of knowledge and guilt. An announcement that the matter is being extensively investigated and that such conduct is not tolerated in the organization goes a long way to safeguarding one’s reputation and possibly the organization itself (many pundits found the sudden closure of News of the World suspicious, based on protecting the Murdoch empire from legal liability). There were and may still be ways to staunch the bleeding, but it may now be very difficult to do. Clearly Murdoch did little or nothing immediately. As a result his empire is suffering and will continue to do so, as stakeholders in Britain and worldwide continue to question his tactics and the integrity of his enterprises.
Many people in the newspaper industry who have been interviewed about the phone hacking scandal find it implausible that editors and publishers wouldn’t know about the sources of stories. They must have known about the hacking and therefore it was both a bottom up and top down conspiracy. Rupert Murdoch may have had knowledge and thus the reason for the code of silence to date. It will be interesting to hear his testimony. At all costs he must avoid appearing out of touch with his businesses, imperious because of his power, or delusional that his connections will protect him. From David Cameron on down, the flight to high ground has begun.
Events seem to be gathering speed as this is being written for publication. Rebekah Brooks was arrested and released on bail. The leader of London’s Metropolitan Police Services, or Scotland Yard, Paul Stephenson, and his deputy have stepped down under growing allegations that the respected organization was very cozy with members and agents of the Murdoch empire; and more information is surfacing about David Cameron’s personal relationships and frequent meetings with similar individuals.
As individual reputations begin to crumble, little effort seems to be directed towards salvaging the Murdoch enterprises, some of which are very much worth saving. Placing someone who is untainted in a position of authority would appear to be necessary and Joel Klein would seem to be the man to take charge right now. The businesses must be separated from the personalities and be made to run as business as usual. There is no sense in allowing individuals – any individuals – to drag down an entire business empire. Klein has a good reputation (a lawyer who was head of the New York City School System until he joined Murdoch), and can direct the “clean” Murdoch business units on a steady course until the mess can be sorted out or until it at least simmers down.