Editorial: A failure of leadership

Writing this in the UK in the week that Rupert Murdoch and his son James testified before the select committee investigating management complicity in phone hacking at News of the World, I am conscious that this unfolding saga is yet another example of failure of leadership. And it illustrates dramatically the critical role of leadership in sustaining organisations, as distinct from the role of management skills and processes.
Now that this issue is calling David Cameron’s leadership into question it is reminder that individuals in positions of power and influence don’t need to actively participate in wrongdoing to be tainted by it. It is enough to simply set tone, an expectation – an environment in which generally unacceptable and/or illegal practices become the standard.
Asking whether or not the Murdochs and any of their News International senior management knew of or precipitated any of the alleged activities is not the point. The significant fact is that it appears Murdoch and his senior executive team created an environment in which it was expected that employees would routinely break laws, breach human rights and ride roughshod over the feelings and privacy of citizens in their most vulnerable and distressed states. All for the sake of the next sensationalised front page scoop.
Murdoch and his lot would argue that they are simply feeding public appetite for this stuff. History shows that this kind of material both creates and then feeds the demand. The pressure for more and juicier revelations escalates as rival media vehicles join the fray to try to grab some of the market share that the most salacious headlines deliver.
A free press has an important role in democracy; to keep those who would rule us honest and to widely disseminate information so that the populace can make informed decisions about the important issues of the day; about who they want in power and how they want to be ruled. This opportunity to influence opinion brings with it huge responsibility – to publish the truth and present facts in balanced way.
Nowhere in the media’s mandate is there anything about creating the news or prying (apparently illegally) into the most personal details of private individuals who have not courted fame but find themselves thrust into the limelight because tragedy has befallen them or their loved ones.
Holding public figures to account is significant part of the media’s role; but it is hard to see how this other gratuitous scandal-mongering delivers benefit to society in any way. The media can make and break careers, deliver fame and fortune and destroy lives. With those who set the culture and expectations in the Murdoch media empire now being called to account perhaps we may see some tempering in the tabloid press in particular of the very worst excesses of ‘free’ media.
And perhaps other institution leaders who actively or passively promote questionable practices in their own organisations might start to question their personal culpability as the creators of the culture of their business. Leadership is about values and principles. Returns to shareholders come as consequence of that leadership; they should not be what drives it.

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