Murdoch: Not Actually Stalin

Amongst all the speculation as to why Rupert Murdoch has not fired Rebekah Brooks, the chief editor of what was the News of the World, there doesn’t appear to be the most reasonable explanation: he considers her a valuable employee and gets on well with her.  Yes, we have an awful lot of theorising on what she knows, where the bodies are buried, where the skeletons are hidden, etc.  And to be fair, we do have some reasonable explanations as well, i.e. maybe it is better to have her on the payroll should this end up in court.

The thing is, I’ve seen an awful lot of blitheringly incompetent fools sitting at or near the top of organisations who have cost their company money and reputation, but never came close to getting fired.  I’ve worked in no fewer than three companies where a joke is made about a certain manager or director having pictures of the CEO with a chicken.  In other words, senior people making enormous fuckups does not lead to them getting fired half as often as you think.  Look at the oil business.  Tony Hayward did not get sacked from BP following the Macondo well blowout, he merely got replaced as CEO.  Yes, he left of his own accord (no doubt with a hefty payout) a little later, but he was not publicly removed from employment with the company.  Oil companies almost never sack their middle or lower management, never mind the senior staff.  If you fuck up in an oil company, they will move you sideways or promote you into a position where you can’t do too much damage (usually in the HSE department, writing procedures which nobody reads).  I have personally seen one person underperform to the point he was promoted in an oil company.  Actually, make that two people.  True, none of these committed blunders as grave as Rebekah Brooks (if you can call shifting millions of copy over a decade a blunder), but it was judged they were better retained than sacked.  I’ve heard this is quite common in other large companies too – every organisation, no matter how elite it is perceived to be, has useless, blundering people who everyone looks at and thinks “How the hell did he get in?”  There are reasons for this.  Personal relationships count for a lot in business, and the hard-nosed, ruthless manager who sacks people on a whim does exist, but he is rare.  The lower ranks will feel his wrath, and the subcontractors will take a beating (especially in the oil business where if the client fucks up, the subcontractor is always to blame), and newcomers will be vulnerable at any level, but I have never seen a senior manager who enjoyed a long and amicable relationship with the head of an organisation get fired.  Never.

It is often also the case that the damages done cannot be undone, and there is little point in compounding them further by sacking somebody.  People on the outside might not be able to judge an employee’s value to an organisation as well as those on the inside, especially the management.  A classic example of this was Alex Ferguson’s retention of Eric Cantona after he booted a Crystal Palace fan and caused an outcry amongst the FA, fans, and sponsors alike.  Ferguson employed Cantona to score goals, and his potential to score more goals (once his ban had ended) outweighed whatever damage limitation could be achieved by sacking him from the club.  Good managers have to think like this, whereas the public looking on…rarely think at all.  Plus, Ferguson probably quite liked having Cantona around.  I have heard in an interview with the former that they didn’t speak much and weren’t exactly friends, but he apparently played a useful role in being a mentor to the younger players (presumably when he wasn’t booting fans), and was an important figure in the dressing room.  Contrast this with the likes of Jaap Stam or Paul Ince who were performing well but fell out with Ferguson, and both found themselves rapidly transferred out. Going back to the oil business, many of those who appear to lead a charmed life have friends (or their wives do, at any rate) who backed them for reasons which went beyond good business.  A subsidiary of one company I worked for ensured its core of managers – who were, to a man, blindingly incompetent when they weren’t being dishonest – all hailed from Scotland, preferably Aberdeen.  Their contract staff turned over completely twice in the space of two years and they failed to deliver a single project, but the core management survived unscathed.

My point?  There is more than enough evidence that personal relationships have a lot more to do with whether somebody gets sacked or not than what somebody has actually done (or not done).  Couple a good personal relationship with a shrewd manager (as Ferguson was) who can see more clearly than a baying mob outside the window, and it is possible for the seemingly untenable to become quite tenable.

Now, as I remarked earlier, Rebekah Brooks was no shoddy performer.  Employed to flog newspapers, she did just that for years, selling more than any other title.  The methods used to achieve this impressive performance leave a lot to be desired, but this is a rather different matter than had she simply not performed and watched the publications go down the drain on her watch.  So, she obviously had skills which added considerable value to News International’s bottom line.  Does she still have them?  Certainly.  So she is still a valuable employee, provided they can find something else for her to do.  The damage is largely done, and sacking her now is unlikely to reduce that. Yes, it would relieve the “pressure” but I’m not entirely convinced Murdoch doesn’t think this pressure is more a figment of his commercial rivals’ imagination than anything he can’t handle.  If the British government block his bid to take over BSkyB then it will be everything to do with populist posturing on the part of politicians and little to do with the merits or otherwise of the deal, and if that’s the case then kicking out Brooks isn’t going to change anything.  So from a shrewd managerial point of view, which Murdoch almost certainly holds, he probably doesn’t see much advantage in sacking a valuable employee who would probably turn up in a rival organisation in any case.

But let’s speculate a bit about what sort of personal relationship Brooks enjoys with Murdoch?  Well, she was either deputy editor or editor of his two top-selling titles between 1998 and 2009, whereupon she became CEO of News International.  I think it is fair to say that the two enjoy a pretty good professional relationship, and it’s hard to imagine that the two do not enjoy a healthy personal relationship either.  Now, can anyone think of an instance where a senior executive has been sacked for something other than poor performance by somebody who has backed them for over a decade?  I can’t, but I’m not too hot on corporate comings and goings so I am prepared to be enlightened.  But let’s look for other set precedents.  Can anyone think of an instance where somebody has been kept in a company because they know too much, or have dirt on the CEO of the parent company?  No, I can’t either.  I would imagine it’s a lot easier to buy their silence and allow them to resign quietly than have them wandering around the corridors of power winking and nudging every time the boss speaks.  If you see Brooks resign for “personal reasons” in the next week or so and turn up a bit later in Monaco sipping pink gins on a yacht called Lady Becks, you know what’s happened.

I think what’s happened here is people have invented a pantomime villain in Murdoch and are now trying to equate what is actually happening with what a pantomime villain is supposed to do.  Unfortunately, Murdoch is not a pantomime villain as such a person would not survive long in business.  He might be a ruthless business operator, but it is quite likely that he enjoys a good personal relationship with Brooks, appreciates what’s she’s done for the past decade or more, and simply wants to have her around a little longer.  Businessmen, no matter how ruthless they appear, must compromise occasionally.  Somebody who walks around axing everybody will not get to head an organisation as successful as News Corporation.  In fact, I think the only people who can get to the top by shitting on absolutely everybody and would shoot their grandmothers to distract attention away from something shameful are politicians.  Perhaps the British public have been watching them for so long that they think everyone behaves like they do?


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