Midway through their mammoth testimony, long before the custard pie, James Murdoch was asked if he had ever heard of ‘Wilful Blindness’? He gave an out-of-place smirk and shrugged. His father chipped-in that whilst he’d heard of it “we’ve never been guilty of it”. Hold that thought.
Later, during Rebekah Brooks testimony, she was asked how payments to private detectives were authorised. The gist of her reply was that News International set an overall budget for a newspaper, the editor would then allocate budgets downward to ‘managing editors’, they would fund individual reporters and so long as everyone stayed within their authorised threshold they were accountable for their own spend. Underlings were trusted. If you were within your limits it seems no questions would be asked. None of the witnesses had any idea as to the actual transactional mechanisms -cash, invoices or whatever – that allowed their reporters to pay private detectives (or actual detectives come to that).
Now, I’m no lawyer. I’m not clear on the line that has to be crossed in corporate governance or financial control arrangements before executives fall legally foul of neglecting their duties. However, I’m pretty sure the MPs were trying to establish if the delegated payment authorities were so piss poor as to appear manufactured to ensure there wasn’t visibility of how junior staff were spending the company’s money. Our inquisitive MPs danced around this. The questions, though never framed in such direct terms, were steering them to infer they had therefore allowed ‘plausible deniability’ to become institutionalised at the News of the World. No wonder they introduced James Murdoch to the phrase ‘wilful blindness’. In the US folk go to jail for that sort of thing. If the committee smelt blood on this point they chose not to go for the kill. For now.
Regardless, the testimony painted a picture of executives who simply didn’t grasp whole chunks of the detail you might expect. I’m happy that they wouldn’t have been in the micro-detail at the time, but troubled that given the magnitude of what has happened they still didn’t seem to have really drilled in on it since. The more mundane narrative to explain this is that the Murdochs and Brooks had a lax grip on the internal controls in their company, they delegated to the wrong people (you can delegate responsibility, you can’t delegate accountability) and they failed to assure a culture of ethics, audit and active management on a high profile part of their stable. If it isn’t conspiracy (and to be honest, on balance I don’t think it is) then there is still a measure of old fashioned incompetence. Either way, it is no wonder Rupert feels humbled.