It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to the leadership lessons of the cell phone hacking scandal rocking News Corp., which shockingly opted to close the 168-year-old British paper News of the World on Thursday after a week of increasingly worse allegations about the tabloid’s practices.
There’s the brilliant managing-up skills of Rebekah Brooks, the feared company executive and former editor of the tabloid during some of the alleged hacking. Despite legislator after legislator calling for her resignation, Brooks has retained her job and the blessings of her boss, Rupert Murdoch, even as the staffers of the tabloid she was in charge of lose theirs. There’s the center-stage emergence of the heir apparent, too. The idea to shutter the tabloid reportedly came from Murdoch’s son, James, who announced the bombshell decision himself in a lengthy statement Thursday while his father spent the day at mogul summer camp in Sun Valley, Idaho, declining to comment.
And then, of course, there’s the chorus of voices singing the “I didn’t know it was going on” defense. In his statement, the younger Murdoch said “I now know that I did not have a complete picture” of what was happening when he approved out-of-court settlements that would help to prevent the hacking victims from sharing information about the tactics. Meanwhile, Brooks, who was editor of the tabloid when the paper allegedly hacked into the phone of a slain 13-year-old girl—reports of which fueled the fury this week that prompted the paper’s demise—has made similar claims. She has said she knew nothing about the practice and that she was “appalled and shocked” by the allegations. Her successor, Andy Coulson, who later became British Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director and whose arrest is expected to be imminent, has also maintained he knew nothing about the practice. And the senior Murdoch has called the hacking allegations “deplorable and unacceptable.”
Perhaps none of them knew anything at all, or at least did not have a “complete picture” of what was going on. (Anyone who’s ever worked for an editor in journalism, however, will find it hard to believe that Brooks or Coulson did not ask questions about how their reporters got their stories. News organizations may be big, but they’re not so unwieldy that such basic questions don’t get asked—if not in supervision of reporters, at least out of professional curiosity.)
But this sort of “know-nothing” defense falls short on two fronts. For one, such expressions of ignorance weaken their credibility as leaders. That may be the least of their worries at the moment, especially as a huge deal for News Corp. to buy out British Sky Broadcasting Group looks like it could be delayed amid controversy over the scandal. For leaders in lesser quandaries, saying you know nothing may get you off the hook, but it’s unlikely to engender much confidence in how well you know what’s going on in the organization here forward.
More importantly, professions of oblivion miss the point entirely. Even if the “I didn’t know about it” defense turns out to be perfectly true about the transgression in question, the cell phone hacking practices seem to have been routine enough that blaming it on a rogue reporter is impossible. Rather, all of these leaders had a hand in creating an atmosphere where such dubious—not to mention illegal—alleged behavior was replicated. As The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta wrote Thursday, “Is Murdoch responsible? Of course he is. He fathered a tabloid culture on three continents that reveled in the kind of news that could produce screaming headlines.” Leadership means being responsible not only for actions themselves, but for the environments which cause them to happen.
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