The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple

With all the explosive power of a damp squib, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee came and went.  Of course there was a lot of attention and a lot of talk and a lot of commentary, but the morning after are we really any better off or more informed? Are we really any closer to understanding what happened at the News of the World?

The reason that the committee was interviewing Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks is because of the serious actions that seemingly took place at the News of the World and a need and desire to understand what went wrong.  Yet from a lot of the online commentary yesterday you would be forgiven for thinking that this was more about trying to get one over and humiliate an individual media mogul, than any exploration of truth.  If you haven’t seen the witch’s scene (below) from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – it was pretty reminiscent.

In the end, what we got was a relative plausible story from the Murdoch family about how their business was run (personally I think Brooks was less convincing).  I know saying this won’t make me the most popular with many, but anyone who has actually worked in a large multi national conglomerate will know that there is an absolute requirement to devolve power and responsibility to people within the organisational structure. It is also worth pausing for thought here at the number of HR commentators that talk about devolution of responsibility and empowerment as being positive attributes – until it involves someone who they politically or morally dislike when it becomes a character flaw.

What we didn’t get was any further insight into the events that took place or indeed any revelations that would help us to better understand.  Apart from one shameful incident with an intruder and a foam pie, there was little to talk about. And in truth they were the only one to land a blow and the foam had more substance than anything else to come out of the MPs’ questioning (sorry all you Tom Watson fanboys – but he didn’t get anywhere).

As I’ve said many times before, organisations are complex and intricate.  If we genuinely want to understand the reasons behind the issues at the News of the World – to then help us understand what is also probably going on at other newspapers too and how to prevent it – then we need to take off the blinkers of preconception and start to think about how large organisations work, how cultures develop and the balance between control and leadership.  As a profession HR is perhaps best placed to lead some of this thinking.  We should be talking about the issues that really matter and considering how the insight that we have from working in businesses, might shed some light on the goings on at the News of the World.

It might be helpful, it might be developmental  and it would certainly be more productive than a peasant mass screaming for a hanging.


  1. Jon · July 20, 2011

    Great post Neil, you have succeeded in articulating my own thoughts on this far more capably than I could have done.

    Any decent interrogator will tell you that the act of interrogation itself is pretty meaningless. “It’s a fair cop guvnor, you’re too good for me” is a thing of fiction and fantasy. Columbo is very entertaining but it doesn’t work like that in real life.

    We were never going to learn the truth about what really happened yesterday. The best we could hope for would be a few visual ‘tells’ that could allow us to make our own minds up about who knew what. So I tuned in because I had never seen James Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks perform before and I was intrigued to see how they came across.

    What I saw was a bunch of unremarkable MPs trying to score points against the Murdoch dynasty in a pretty unstructured, scatter-gun and pointless exercise. I saw a frail old man being bullied and I saw a son doing his best to stand up for his father. Actually James Murdoch came over as a very credible, intelligent and honourable man. I thought Rebekah Brookes appeared defensive and irritable.

    Your points about empowerment and delegation are spot on. News Corporation is a massive multi-billion dollar conglomeration comprising hundreds of enterprises across the world – of which News International is a tiny spec on the map. Yes there are organisational and industry cultures and behaviours that need to be addressed here but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the real guilt lies with the individuals who committed the crimes and their immediate supervisors who either were not watching closely enough or were complicit in encouraging their criminal behaviour.

    Blaming Rupert Murdoch for phone hacking is as silly as blaming Henry Ford for speeding.

    And what on earth was Jim Sheridan’s fascination with Number 10’s back door all about?

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      Thanks Jon, although you make some of the points better than me. So I can’t use the Henry Ford defence if I ever get stopped then? Back to the drawing board…..

  2. Judy Payne · July 20, 2011

    Yes, great post. If yesterday’s Committee proceedings lead to more control and less leadership in the wider business world (as I fear they will) then we’ll be taking a rather large step backwards. What we really need is what you describe: better understanding of how organisations work.

    I’ve thanked you in my own blog, too, where I made similar points from a knowledge management perspective.

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      Thanks for commenting Judy and thanks for the blog reference too….much appreciated.

  3. MegP · July 22, 2011

    However big the organisation, the leadership tone and expectations for behaviour do come from the top down, and if the expectation from the top is to get the best story, first, quickest and cut corners if you need to, then that filters down the organisation and then you can see the distortion of values that took place with the people hacking. My view is that Murdoch is responsible whether he knew the detail or not, because he is responsible for the prevailing culture of arrogance that allowed people to misattribute their success to their aggressive approach, when their success is entirely predicated upon popular opinion. Not sure how much HR can lead the debate when HR is often complicit in the systems and processes that reinforce the leadership expectations.

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      I don’t think one person can be to blame, but at the same time I don’t think a leader should absolve themselves of blame. I just think it is complex and we each have a choice about how we behave, suddenly turning and saying “the big boy made me do it” just doesn’t wash.

  4. Great post Neil, and HR are better positioned if only because the Murdochs could not make such a great film as the Pythons! 🙂

  5. Neil · September 6, 2011

    Thanks for commenting Peter. The Life of Brian remains my favourite though!

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