The guts of Tuesday's testimony by Rupert Murdoch was his assertion
that his employees, not the man himself, were responsible for the
extensive phone-hacking and apparent payoffs to police officers.
"Do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?" UK lawmaker Jim Sheridan asked.
"No," Murdoch answered.
"You're not responsible? Who is responsible?" Sheridan said.
"The people that I trusted to run [the tabloid], and then maybe the people that they trusted."
response to questions about whether he was culpable of "willful
blindness" or ignoring "knowledge that you could have had and should
have had," he said: "We were not ever guilty of that."
Murdoch may or may not be found to have approved or condoned the gamey, apparently illegal practices of News of the World -- and
possibly of his other UK newspapers housed under News International,
which was headed at various relevant times by his longtime friend Les
Hinton and his much admired protégé, Rebekah Brooks. The facts on those
questions will be developed by a rehabilitated police investigation and
by the inquiry, with subpoena power, which a senior UK judge will
But what is clear is that he failed to
clean up his UK news operation six years ago, when the phone of Prince
Williams was hacked and a News of the World reporter and an
outside private investigator were jailed. This failure of the leader of
the company makes him directly responsible for "this whole fiasco,"
because proper action six years ago would have exposed problems in News
International, led to company sanctions of responsible individuals,
caused a prohibition on improper acts accompanied by an enforced code of
journalistic conduct, and prompted leadership from the top to change
the culture of those news organizations.
Here is my chain of thought on Murdoch's responsibility.
the events became public, it is inconceivable that Rupert Murdoch was
not well aware of the instance of illegal hacking of the heir to the
throne and of the criminal sanctions imposed on a reporter in his own
newspaper. (It isn't every day that one of your reporters is guilty of a
There is an iron rule of corporate
crisis management for top leaders: "It is our problem the moment we hear
about it." Having heard about "it" (the royal hacking and the criminal
disposition), the leader of the corporation should have made sure that
he actually learned the causes of the individual case, whether those
causes were systematic, how many others in the organization were
involved, how people would be disciplined, and how systems and culture
would be changed.
For a CEO (and board of
directors) who really wanted those questions answered, he would have
made sure that there was an independent internal investigator of stature
who could blow through bureaucratic and self-protective obfuscation to
find the truth. The structure, process, and personnel of such an inquiry
were issues that should have been handled at the top of News Corp.,
with the CEO making clear to all that he wanted all the facts on the
Although the News Corp CEO would not,
of course, be involved in the actual inquiry, he would have insisted on
regular reports on how the facts were being developed and then on the
appropriate actions that flowed from those facts.
seems quite clear now that Rupert Murdoch and his feckless board took
none of those steps. In this deeply important sense, Rupert Murdoch is
clearly responsible for the conflagration inside News Corp, contrary to
his attempt yesterday to avoid accountability.
course, there was a sham internal investigation, led by News
International execs and handled by regular outside counsel, which
concluded that there were only acts of one rogue reporter. But it is
now clear that significant amounts of material indicating widespread
hacking were ignored, and that there were improper
relationships--including possible bribes and threats -- with investigating
police that led to a stunted official inquiry.
both James Murdoch and his father acknowledged prior to their
appearance before the Parliamentary committee that News Corp had failed
determine what had been happening in their own organization. According
to James, the now-defunct News of the World and its immediate
corporate parent, News International, had failed to get to the bottom of
"repeated wrong-doing that occurred" and "wrongly maintained that that
these issues were confined to one reporter." Rupert Murdoch said in his
first full page ad last week, " We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing
that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the
individuals affected. We regret not acting faster to sort things out."
How about responsibility for a failure to heed the warning sign of a
reporter guilty of a crime and treat the disease before it metastasized.
As a leader, Rupert Murdoch's statement that he is "not responsible" is not just craven. It is wrong.
Image: Paul Hackett/Reuters
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Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.