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News of The World – A moral crisis in the making? July 11, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Leadership and management, Management, Philosophy.
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The printed media industry, like the music industry, has been under pressure in recent years.  Convenient and timely electronic access to a wide variety of content has all but rendered traditional methods of delivery irrelevant.  When you can get breaking news as it happens, as long as you are on line, why would deadlines for inclusion in printed newspapers matter?

Reeling under conditions of hyper-competition to survive, let alone thrive, many big-name magazines and newspapers have had to find ways to differentiate themselves.  These include news “scoops” which are possible only through clandestine tactics involving invasion of privacy and rampant disregard for human decency.  Hacking into voicemail accounts of murder victims and celebrities is par for the course if it provides an edge on stories that pique the interest of readers.

On the surface, moral outrage against such practices has brought down UK’s Sunday tabloid News of The World (NOTW).  The abrupt decision by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corporation to close the newspaper raises a number of questions in its wake.

The decision announced by News International’s Chairman James Murdoch that the edition of NOTW on July 10th, 2011 is its last appears at first sight to be admission of, if not atonement for, culpability in the phone hacking accusations.  In his statement on the closure, Murdoch says: “The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.”

Murdoch sugar-coats the decision by claiming to take the moral high ground, but even  commentators who are not die-hard cynics have reason to believe that other motives are behind it.  Terminating a 168-year-old institution is a momentous decision that cannot be taken lightly, especially when many jobs are involved, and even in the context of the allegations of outrageous practices by its staff, surely can be but the last resort.

First, there are commercial considerations.  Like many other brands in recent times publicly dragged through the dirt of scandalous behaviour, for example, Tiger Woods, NOTW is likely to face mass desertion by commercial benefactors
such as advertisers, at least in the short term, damaging its commercial viability.  Yet as the dominant Sunday tabloid with a circulation of 2.6 million readers, NOTW is probably profitable, and can withstand a little pressure before sinking into red ink.  Besides, shrewd businessmen such as the Murdochs don’t just give up a profitable venture that easily.

Many point to Murdoch’s intention to launch a title that mirrors the highly successful The Sun, which doesn’t publish on Sunday.  On July 5th, two days before the NOTW closure was announced, two URLs, TheSunOnSunday.com and TheSunOnSunday.co.uk, were registered.  Could closure of NOTW be a convenient way to re-brand it as The Sun?

Second, closing NOTW is a masterstroke of guilt denial.  By cutting off what might be a rotten branch, James Murdoch is clearly trying to distance himself and the rest of News International from the culprits as the tree that remains unspoiled.  Yet Rebekah Brooks, the editor in charge when NOTW committed the alleged offences, remains a trusted executive of News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch is said to have expressed “total support” for her as CEO of News International.  Could she be the one bad apple?

Third, even if the Murdochs are genuinely ignorant about about the outrageous practices in NOTW, as leaders of the organisation, they must take responsibility for the root cause of such behaviour – sacrificing moral standards in a relentless drive for commercial results.  Even if they don’t overtly condone the behaviour of a handful of NOTW staff, they cannot deny endemic failure to maintain moral standards in the organisation.

Debates about the closure of NOTW will continue for months.  Some will concern the commercial brutality facing newspapers in general; others will focus on the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media.  In my mind, the most important questions we need to answer are:

Are we facing a moral crisis in general, and if so do we even know?

The media survive only if they provide what readers want.  NOTW obviously did this well.  Many readers interviewed by stv claim that despite the phone hacking practices, they continue to buy NOTW.  Are we so inured to injustices in the world that all we look for is the next cheap thrill, and in response are the media right in serving us everything that we want?  If not, are they going to survive?  What wider responsibilities do the media have in defending moral standards and human decency, in the same way as they shape public opinion?

What is the responsibility, if any, of commercial executives to balance the drive for results and maintenance of moral standards?

Commercial enterprises exist to generate profit for shareholders and economic benefits for the wider population.  Many regulations prevent behaviour detrimental to some segments of society, for example unfair competition, price
fixing and misleading product descriptions.  Yet many commercial practices are legal but morally questionable.  How do leaders in these organisations choose between the ignominy of missing commercial targets and defending moral
standards?

What lessons are we going to teach the next generation about NOTW debacle?

The financial crisis of 2008 has taught the world nothing about the fiduciary duty of bankers to protect customers’ life savings.  In fact, banking leaders have shown no remorse for taking, and then passing on, incalculable risks.  Worse still, they feel entitled to millions in bonus payments in return.  As economies in developed countries suffer severe budget cuts resulting from decades of profligacy, it is inevitable that comercialisation of education will intensify.  We have
already shown an avid appetite for vocationally friendly courses at universities (cf. my comments on Middlesex University’s abolition of philosophy courses).  Are we likely to reflect on the NOWT case and pause to think about the need for moral education as a fundamental requirement?

Until we have fully considered and answered the above questions, those who have lost their jobs in NOTW will have done so in vain.  They deserve our sympathy.