The Pitchfork and the Dauphin

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1st Mar 2012




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It's neither a wise nor popular course of action to defend News Corp. and its senior leadership in the wake of the scandals rocking its UK newspaper division, but there does come a moment where a bit of perspective could do everyone some good, so here goes: James Murdoch is a good guy. Yes, we said it and here's why.

Over the years, Hub Culture has had occasion to deal with CEOs and top management around the world on a personal and informal basis.  From the World Economic Forum Annual Meetings to art fairs, environmental summits and tech events, the external image of these activities imply a level of access and interaction many people don't have. We realize this is something of a privilege, but it doesn't mean we are insiders - we struggle and fight and phenagle just like everyone else to be where we are and do what we do.  What you learn is that everyone is human, and personal qualities become starkly evident. James avoids most of the glitz, prefering to live quietly with his head down, out of the spotlight, even at such affairs.

A lot of success in the modern world comes from a kind of knowledge and perspective about who does what, and that can be leveraged.  However, despite all the leverage in the world, its hard to get things done - individual people are not all knowing, and that is why we build organizations to run things.  Even in the best organization, a leader really only knows what is happening one, two, maybe three degrees away from them. So good leadership must rely on character, and character comes from actions and convictions.  James has character, and his actions in the scandal have been clouded by the ugliness of what occurred NOT under his watch. He's cleaning up the mess, and while that's gotten his tie dirty, it only further proves he has what it takes to lead in a world vastly different from Rupert's.

Everyone agrees that the phone hacking, bribery and scandal that have engulfed the British newspaper world are deplorable.  Its an unwritten, never spoken nod among the cognoscenti that it wasn't just News of the World and the Sun being shitheads - these practices were quiet and widespread (with the notable and now honorable exception of the Guardian).  That doesn't make it right, and what people forget/ignore is that James was brought in from a completely different area of the business (TV) and worked to fix the mess long after it took place.  Then it was James who initially brought the subject back into the spotlight after suggesting it should be looked into again, and who took responsibility for it within the organization, apologizing and setting the wheels in motion to TRULY root it out. He popped the zit.

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There is an assumption out there that James knew what was going on and didn't do enough to stop it - but looking at the timelines of the hacking, when it occurred and when it stopped, its evident that he wasn't even around News International when these issues took place, and upon assuming leadership of the organization he began working to unravel and fix the situation.  We know him - he's not the kind of guy to condone or accept this. In fact, it would have made him apoleptic with rage when he found out. Mad enough to do the right thing and bring it to light, regardless of the consequences.

It was never in the career plan for James to remain head of News International for very long - he's smart, ambitious, and well connected enough to do anything he wants, and everyone knows newspapers are not the future. His move to New York was announced as early as April 2011, and had been in the works far longer. People who know him privately will vouch for his character - he is guided by a rock solid sense of justice - conservative to a fault perhaps, but also reasonable.  He's hyper intelligent, and grills anyone on world affairs with a sense of interest, not entitlement. He's a lifelong learner, as they say. And there are results: behind the scenes he has gone against the knee-jerk conservative establishment on issues like the environment, social rights, and other areas, bringing a much needed sense of balance to the company and going head-to-head against a number of Fox stalwarts.  All of this has been done quietly, without fanfare or desire for attention.  

With all the mudslinging in the press, the public attitude has been that people can and will say anything they want with no checks - Gawker outright calling him a liar, the press and Parliment hounding him for blood. His public reaction - no 'defense' - has been the justified course of action. Some kind of flagellation, a chop at the guilliotine, not for anything he has done himself, but for the situation at large.  The allegory is rich. Sadly, none of the many who know and respect James have come to his public defense, given the toxicity of the topic. Rebekah Wade? Thats another story - it happened on her watch.

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Some see comeuppance for a son born into riches and power, invoking the Dauphin, the famous heirs to the French throne. But the Dauphins were clever, and often acted against the wishes of the King to ensure longer term strategic goals of benefit to the kingdom. They were like their symbol, the dolphin. Its not so different now - one could even say James is bit dolphin-like - intelligent, social, engaging, modern. He was born to obligation and opportunity that comes with heavy responsibility. The family owns over 40% of the company, and like it or not, his younger generation (with Lachlan and Elisabeth) has a rare interest in building News Corp for a generation, not a quarter. That's not such a bad thing for shareholders. Every indication is that he wants to build an organization that is socially and environmentally responsible, and a force for good - despite the current image.

As far as running the businesses, the track record speaks for itself but is rarely mentioned: revenue grew multifold in Asia under his guidance at Star, he successfully managed BSkyB in the UK to profitability, and he has the balls to take action - closing newspapers and trying to right the course of the ship.  

The newspapers debacle has not been a happy chapter, but in the end it will be a footnote, and hopefully that footnote will recognize the character that it takes to do what James did, and to handle a messy situation with dignity. The questions he faces are not easy ones, and he may come off looking like a deer in headlights, but he has consistently done the right thing.

The guy has honour.  Maybe its not easy to see that now, but once the pitchforks get laid to rest and the oiled torches burn out, it will become evident.