Bad management, ethics and philosophy: what can we learn from News of the World?

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The demise of a 168 year old (and reportedly profitable) newspaper in Britain called the News of the World (NoTW) gives us some valuable insights on a number of levels.

Every day over the past few weeks we have been gobsmacked by the revelations about NoTW and assume nothing could be more shocking.

But then there’s a new revelation about the way NoTW practised its business and we’re even more shocked.

An important insight they offer us is how management practice in the real world is informed by management thinking about business and ethics. And how thinking about business and ethics translates into behaviour in the workplace.

Bruce Guthrie, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, recounts that in 1988 at a conference of News Corporation editors in Aspen, Colorado:

“I asked about ethics and Rupert called me a wanker”.

This article is interesting because it gives us a view into the behaviour that the top leader in that organisation demonstrated to his senior leaders and managers.

As Guthrie notes:

“I left that conference in Colorado more than 20 years ago concerned that Murdoch saw ethics or, at least, the discussion of them, as an inconvenience that got in the way of the newspaper business.”

When the top leader of an organisation gives that kind of strong message then it is extremely unlikely that any other leaders or managers will explore issues like ethics or managerial accountability. It is also unlikely that exploring those kinds of issues is part of the reward and remuneration structure within the organisation.

Further, it is also unlikely that the business leaders, given that kind of strong message from the top, will ever take the time to consider philosophical issues about management, leadership and the kind of business they want to run for customers, employees or society.

With that kind of leadership message we get a soulless automaton of an organisation that does whatever it takes to deliver shareholder value, no matter what cost to the people involved in the process.

And now, with News of the World, we see the results of that kind of leadership and management.

Where does the buck stop with the kinds of bad behaviour we saw in News of the World? Where did the people at the front line get the message that their appalling practices were okay? What kind of management philosophy was in place there?

Perhaps just a quick check of the News Corporation corporate governance page demonstrates their current thinking on corporate governance?

It seems that there are interesting questions for all leaders and managers to ask ourselves arising from this tragic tale of a corporation gone wild.

Most importantly we must ask ourselves “would I have gone along with business practices like those in evidence at News of the World?” – it is easy to say no from the comfort of an armchair and with full hindsight. ¬†More pertinent to consider is the challenge of saying no during the cut-and-thrust of a busy day in the office when your job is on the line?

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