News Corporation’s Standards of Business Conduct document reads well. It sets out the high ethical standards required of all members of staff, covering areas such as trust, honesty, data privacy, bribery and safeguarding the company reputation.
Today’s statement by James Murdoch announcing the surprise closure of the News of the World appeared to be a mea culpa at first reading. It was actually an attempt to detach himself and the management team from responsibility; use of the passive voice is marked throughout in phrases such as “the News of the World and News International wrongly maintained that these issues were confined to one reporter”.
The problem with this is that the phone hacking and other crimes were not perpetrated by the newspaper, but by people at the newspaper. I cannot believe that management would not have known what was going on – especially with the recent admission of the problem being more widespread than originally claimed.
The consequences of these crimes are profound; the misery caused by phone hacking to Milly Dowler’s parents, grieving soldiers’ parents and war widows; the loss of jobs; the destruction of a 168 year old brand and the associated financial consequences.
So how could things have been allowed to go so terribly wrong? Blaming a small number of “rotten apples” is a smokescreen; it’s just too easy. The company knew how it ought to behave because it was spelt out in their Standards of Business Conduct. While all members of staff have a personal responsibility for their conduct, the leadership team are even more accountable. It’s their job to ensure alignment of the culture and company values. It is clear that they failed to do that.
The ensuing public inquiries will no doubt attribute the criminality to a number of causes but I am certain that organisational culture and poor leadership will be high up the list. Just as it was for BP in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately, on this occasion, nobody died as a direct consequence of these failures.