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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Holding the Unfit Accountable vs. Murdoch’s Entitlement to Power

According to the New York Times, “A damning report [in late April 2012] on the hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers concluding that Mr. Murdoch is “not a fit person” to run a huge international company has convulsed Britain’s political and media worlds and threatened a core asset of Mr. Murdoch’s American-based News Corporation.” The report also “found that three senior Murdoch executives misled Parliament in testimony” and “alleges that the company sought to cover up widespread phone hacking.”

The significance of these findings goes beyond one CEO and one company. That someone can go decades at the top of a media empire, yet not be a fit person, and yet have been presumed fit by society indicates a lack of precision in the promotion of candidates to the office and a lack of accountability on their lack of fitness while holding the office.  That is, we as a people tend to project better qualities onto the people occupying high positions than is warranted.  We as a society are therefore quite vulnerable, given the amount of power that CEOs have.

For example, we typically take a CEO’s defense at face value (i.e., as valid). To be sure, a CEO’s account is rarely refuted by a countervailing authority that can force a lying CEO to bear the consequences.  The select committee did not buy Murdoch’s claim that “his executives kept him in the dark about the hacking, saying he ‘exhibited willful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications.’” The question is whether Murdoch would be penalized in some way for lying about being kept in the dark—or for claiming that being ignorant of the hacking is a legitimate justification.  One indication of an answer came as members of the Labour Party “asked British regulators to move, on the basis of the report, toward reducing Mr. Murdoch’s 39.1 percent controlling interest in BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster that produces a hefty profit for the News Corporation.” It can be asked, however, whether this is a sufficient measure, given that Murdoch had been found not fit to head a major media company. A more fitting consequence would his removal as CEO or else no business by any entity in Murdoch’s “empire” could be done in Britain.

Even when it is made explicit that a CEO is not fit to run a major corporation, it somehow seems unreasonable or too drastic for that person to be removed, yet this is precisely what common sense demands. Even in damning the powerful, the countervailing authority begs off.  The projections we make onto those people who are in “high” positions are too strongly held even when a lack of fitness has been found by a credible authority. I suspect that the underlying dynamic involves an interaction between human nature and power that distorts the attributes of occupants of “high” positions. 


John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, “Panel in Hacking Case Finds Murdoch Unfit as News Titan,” The New York Times, May 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/world/europe/murdoch-hacking-scandal-to-be-examined-by-british-parliamentary-panel.html?_r=1&hp&pagewanted=print