Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Bias and arrogance in the hacking scandal

One of the most interesting things, to me anyway, about the hacking scandal is the way that various players seek to impose a certain understanding upon events, and the way that this affects commentary on the subject. At various points in this scandal key events or issues have  been cast in a certain light, and the interpretation of them has shifted.

First, let's think about the way the big allegations first surfaced, and the reaction of various parties to them.  When The Guardian went big on the Gordon Taylor case in July 2009, News  International gave them both barrels, accusing them of misleading the British public no less, and claimed all the substantive allegations were  wrong. Many people took this at face value and thought The Guardian was  attacking commercial/political rivals. Similarly when the select committee produced its first report News International accused it of bias, partisan politics etc and this was backed by at least one of the DCMS committee members. Again, some were happy to accept this.   

By  and large I think political affiliation could determine the view of many people at this stage, with notable exceptions on the more Murdoch-friendly Left. When there were renewed allegations, for example in the New York Times, lefties tended to view them as significant, righties as "old news" recycled by those desperate to attack Murdoch and/or the Tories (via the PM's director of comms). 

When  the hacking scandal blew open properly last summer there was a brief moment when it wasn't clear just how bad the scandal would get and how far up it would reach. The news of the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone briefly united all parties/viewpoints in condemnation. Everyone agreed the BSkyB deal should be scrapped, and that Rebekah Brooks should get the boot. A consensus at last.  

But since then, once again views have tended to diverge. For example, on the key question of what actually happened to Milly Dowler's phone it is clear that defenders of The Guardian believe that Nick Davies' error - claiming that voicemail messages were deleted, rather than stating that this is what was believed - was trivial. For those (mainly) in the News International camp or on the Right politically it was very significant, and arguably the main reason the News of the World closed. Notably recent testimony to the Leveson Inquiry effectively leaves the facts of this issue for ever open to question.  

There was also the difficult question of whether only News International was at it. Most people think not, though evidence of a  similar scale of hacking by other papers has not, and may never, appear  (perhaps because it has been destroyed). For those concentrating on News International this was justified because employees and executive there were clearly guilty, and had already patently lied about their involvement. For opponents this was evidence of political bias against Tory-supporting newspapers. This even spilled into the select committee when one member sought to draw attention to allegations about the former  editor of The Mirror.  

At each of these points you could sense that various interpretations were being put onto events and issues to cast them in a certain light. One of the best examples is the role of James Murdoch, where there remain conflicting versions of events. Murdoch himself wrote a lengthy letter to the select committee to assist its members in joining the dots in a way that was least damaging to him. The committee split on this issue as you might expect it to.

 It happened again when arrests started happening as part of Operation Elveden concerning payments to public officials. From certain parties a couple of important arguments were put forward. First,  this was stamping out the ability of journalists to get whistleblowers to talk. Second, it was a waste of police resources, given there were more serious crimes that warranted more attention. Critics, and the police, hit back arguing that the info being sought was largely gossip, and that this it had the effect of corrupting police officers and others. And we've seen these arguments recycled today as Rebekah Brooks has sought both to cast doubt on the use of police resources to charge her and others with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, and to suggest that the issues at stake were relatively trivial.   

Clearly much of the corporate PR effort has been deployed to encourage a certain view of events to hold, and therefore to leave News Corp in a less bad light.  Equally on the other side, people like Tom Watson have sought to keep the criminality, and the extent of it, at the forefront of people's minds. Even at this relatively late stage there is still a tussle over the overall narrative of this scandal. Some people clearly don't want to believe it's really that bad. (I'm biased too, but in t'other direction  - I think this will rank as a major corporate scandal when we look back  on it and I view most of the facts through that prism).

The one thing that we've seen very little of, however, is contrition on the part of those at the centre of events. Look at the stance take in the past few days by Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks. Quite  a few people at the centre of this scandal have expressed regret about what happened (and that knowledge couldn't have been gotten to their understanding more quickly...), but not really about their own role. Mistakes were made... but not by me. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't recall any of the key players saying anything like "I fell down badly on  the job, I bear responsibility, I apologies for my own failings and those of my subordinates". Instead, lots of people can't remember what they knew, but certainly weren't told what they should have been. Even now I find that quite shocking.

This is not just about News Corp, it's a general problem at a senior level in business these days. Public/customer/stakeholder/shareholder anger is typically characterised as arising from a breakdown in communication - we should have explained ourselves better - rather than a  failure of policy or decision-making. Companies, directors and their lobbyists would rather argue back, tough it out, than acknowledge mistakes. The statements made by Rebekah and Charlie Brooks today will amaze some people, but they are symptomatic of a wider problem. I can't help but think that this type of attitude, not at all uncommon at the top of the private sector, is going to cause problems in the future.

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