The culture committee, which has accused Rupert Murdoch of wilful blindness, implicitly rejected the Murdochs’ argument that ignorance was a sufficient excuse for widespread phone hacking. “We conclude that, if at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications.”
Murdoch, of course, did not turn a blind eye just once but many times: each time a news story had no obvious (and legal) source; each time questions were asked in parliament; each time cursory investigations were allowed to lapse. There are many ways to marginalise and trivialise warning signals. Murdoch, apparently, deployed them all.
We are all susceptible to wilful blindness, ignoring truths about ourselves, each other and the way we live, that threaten our sense of identity and security. If phone hacking were endemic in News Corporation, what did that say about its founder? Murdoch wasn’t the first to believe himself incapable of running a corrupt organisation; to his dying day, Enron‘s chief executive did likewise.
We all succumb to the human tendency to prefer people like ourselves, to readily accept information that confirms our sense of ourselves, and discredit data that doesn’t fit our dominant ideologies. And when people are tired, busy or distracted, it’s clear the human mind falls back on stereotypes and received wisdom.
But this human flaw takes on vastly different proportions inside organisations and the people who lead them. The human instinct to obey authority – so robustly demonstrated in the 1960s by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram – means that most people, asked to commit unethical acts, do so blindly. Research into conformity shows that most of us would rather give a wrong answer than jeopardise belonging to a group. News Corp’s corporate culture contributed to Murdoch’s blindness. And perhaps the greatest blinder of all is power. People in positions of great power inhabit a bubble. This can acquire a physical reality: Murdoch doesn’t travel on public planes or inhabit public spaces – and, from his parliamentary and Leveson performances, clearly isn’t accustomed to unprompted questions or unexpected challenges.
In this cocoon a sense of both physical and intellectual safety develops that is, of course, immensely dangerous. These people are surrounded by others who wish to please them and who hope, themselves, to acquire power by doing so. To advance their own case, they readily proffer the best news while minimising, trivialising or normalising provocative questions. The powerful corporate culture that characterised News Corp was fundamentally one of compliance. Many employees I know who worked there described it as a cult. Just as in totalitarian states, no censor is needed because everyone has internalised what must not be said.
But did Murdoch choose to be blind? He chose to surround himself with loyalists, not critics – with executives who were politically and financially dependent – while losing the more robust stalwarts who could stand up to him. Murdoch designed his corporate governance to make any kind of challenge difficult and ineffectual – while the shareholders themselves chose to ignore the danger of this, blinded themselves by high returns.
And Murdoch won’t be the first parent to be blinded by love. But in choosing to hand control over a substantial part of his empire to his son, he guaranteed that neither critical thinking nor unfettered debate would characterise the management of his key assets.
Richard Fuld, the Lehman Brothers CEO, was also wilfully blind. He organised his life to ensure that he never encountered employees unexpectedly. The chief executive of Bear Stearns chose not to implement a form of risk analysis that might actually have revealed how much debt the bank carried. And the Catholic church, when first confronted with the fact of child-abusing priests, chose first of all to take out insurance. All these institutions were blindsided by their choices – that is, they can’t blame their blindness on others.
As the culture committee says, and as the verdicts against Enron executives made clear, it is the responsibility of the powerful to ensure that they surround themselves with independent thinkers and critical allies who have the freedom and moral courage to tell them the truth. When leaders choose not to do so, they embrace blindness and the moral darkness that goes with it.
• For legal reasons this article has been launched without comments
• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree