James Murdoch has stepped down from his post as executive chairman of News International, following further revelations this week about the conduct of the group’s tabloids. The details emerged at the Leveson Inquiry, which resumed on Monday to open its second module on suspected collusion between members of the press and serving police officers.
In a session on 28 February, former Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames – who had worked on the programme during her tenure as a uniformed police officer – alleged that she and her former husband were put under surveillance by the News of the World after the show had offered a £50,000 reward for information on the murder of detective-agency partner Daniel Morgan. Links between News of the World journalists and private detectives had already been probed in the Leveson Inquiry’s first stage, which dealt with phone hacking – and during her testimony, Hames alleged that “suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry were using their association with a powerful and well-resourced newspaper to try to intimidate us, and so attempt to subvert the investigation”.
Where this week’s evidence has not been outright disturbing, it has been merely farcical – such as the same day’s revelation that Metropolitan Police employees had loaned former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks a retired police horse. The news triggered an instant wave of internet satire, spearheaded by the Twitter hashtag #horsegate and spoof account @RebekahsHorse, which acquired more than 1,000 followers within an hour of bolting out of the starting gates.
In a statement this afternoon, News International parent company News Corporation said: “Following his relocation to [News Corp] headquarters in New York, James Murdoch, deputy chief operating officer, has relinquished his position as executive chairman of News International, its UK publishing unit. Tom Mockridge, chief executive officer of News International, will continue in his post and will report to News Corporation president and COO Chase Carey.”
News Corp chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch was keen to play up his son’s management qualities: “He has demonstrated leadership and continues to create great value at Star TV, Sky Deutschland, Sky Italia, and BSkyB.” He said. “Now that he has moved to New York, James will continue to assume a variety of essential corporate-leadership mandates, with particular focus on important pay-TV businesses and broader international operations.”
Meanwhile, James himself was keen to play up his impact on News International’s fortunes: “With the successful launch of the Sun on Sunday and new business practices in place across all titles,” he said, “News International is now in a strong position to build on its successes in the future. As deputy chief operating officer, I look forward to expanding my commitment to News Corporation’s international television businesses and other key initiatives across the company.”
Prolonging the agony
From a management perspective, the question is: at what point was it determined that James Murdoch could no longer continue in his role? In a corporate behemoth such as News Corporation, where implementing new procedures and switching around senior personnel would be equivalent to doing three-point turns in an oil tanker, it is doubtful that this week’s horsegate embarrassment was the final straw.
It is much more likely that the decision was made as far back as last summer, when Murdoch & Son appeared before the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to deny all knowledge of illegal practices at News International’s papers. At that point, their confident – and clearly well rehearsed – performance before MPs was acclaimed in some quarters as a winning panacea to severe criticism of their leadership styles by rival media groups. But by then, the damage was done: the News of the World had already been closed, hundreds of journalists had lost their jobs in what amounted to a shotgun-redundancy spree, and – as Simon Caulkin said on PM last year – trust in the Murdochs’ grasp of ethics was pretty much destroyed.
If that period of tension did not fully unseat Murdoch Jr from his precipice, then surely his December admission that, in 2008, he had received – and failed to act upon – an email alerting him to phone hacking at the News of the World would have provided the necessary crowbar. In short order, incompetence and ropey attention to detail were added to his already long list of minuses – along with the possibility that his confession was nothing more than a shrewd, lesser-of-two-evils choice that offered instant escape from cover-up suspicions. Better to be seen as incompetent rather than conspiratorial, right?
For reasons of business continuity, any major corporation would be reluctant to release key personnel from senior roles: it is natural that CEOs would aim to preserve lines of communication and batches of know-how that have grown up organically around those people.
But is it really worth prolonging the agony in the way that News Corp has?