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Rupert Murdock: When Leaders Speak

1 May 2012 No Comment

News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son James received high marks for the controlled, crafty confidence they displayed before the parliamentary select committee investigating the phone hacking scandal in July, 2011. There in the flesh was the 80-year-old mogul, proof that a public grilling can’t be out sourced or delegated.  Murdoch claimed he knew next to nothing about what his underlings were up to and apart from his public apologies it wasn’t clear how much he cared.

The pair were back in the hot seat for the formal inquiry launched by British Prime Minister David Cameron into the crimes at the News of the World. The tabloid was shut down by Murdoch but the move failed to stop the crisis from spreading. It’s a story with a topsy-turvy twist because the bad guys had press passes.  This time Murdoch was responding to questions under oath, sharing the spotlight with the celebrities and crime victims whose voice mails were intercepted. It offered few clues to his leadership style and the extent to which it spawned a culture of crime in his newsroom.

His apology was more of the same. “I failed,” he said, then after a pregnant pause “and I’m very sorry about that.”

Back in July Murdoch offered up a more compelling sound bite: “This is the most humble day of my life.”  He framed a victim’s narrative turning words like “betrayal” and “trust” into personal touchstones.  People he had trusted had let him down and his loyal lieutenants had been let down by people they trusted.  In Murdoch’s giant universe corporate responsibility starts on the ground floor. Murdoch even reminded the MPs that the defunct tabloid was “so small:” less than 1% of his vast global empire.  In tabloid speak, he wasn’t accountable, he wasn’t responsible—he was busy.

The more authentic Murdoch emerged when speaking about his rivals. Only days before, News Corp dropped its bid to gain control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB. MP Jim Sheridan asked Murdoch, “You must be horrified by the scandal, and the fact that it has cost you the BSkyB transaction and led to the closure of the News of the World. Who do you blame for that?” Murdoch responded: “A lot of people had different agendas, I think, in trying to build this hysteria. All our competitors in this country formally announced a consortium to try and stop us. They caught us with dirty hands and they built the hysteria around it.”

Manufactured hysteria by rivals and other underachievers, that seemed to sum up Murdoch’s view of the mess nine months ago. His U.S. flag ship Wall Street Journal reported that in his view News Corp had handled the crisis “extremely well in every way possible.”

Murdoch was a formidable witness never straying from the inside lane of dangerous questions.  His mastery of the naked “no,” signaled that as boss, he had no need to elaborate. Murdoch showed a fondness for the word “transparent,” using it when talking about the role of journalists in a free society but never once when responding to questions about the slack corporate governance at News Corp. During the three hours of questioning father and son were friendly, cooperative and without blame. That was the problem. They sounded like morally-remote  figure heads. They didn’t sound  like leaders.

Posted May 1, 2012

Rupert Murdock, CEO, News Corp

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