Sheila Keefe, CFE, CPA
Principal, BDR Advisors LLC
At the center of the News of the World scandal is the premise that violating the law is okay as long as it’s done consistently throughout the industry. To wit, as a rising star in tabloid journalism, Rebekah Brooks (then known as Rebekah Wade) stated to investigators in 2003 that she was sure that “we have paid the police for information in the past.” Upon further inquiry about specifics, Brooks declined to comment, implying that while she did not know of any specific bribes, she was indeed aware that payments to law enforcement were prevalent in the tabloid industry.
Even if we were to believe that Brooks did not know of any specific bribes, her statement in 2003 indicates that she was savvy enough about the tabloid journalism industry to know that juicy tidbits often come at a price. As Brooks ascended the, ranks in News of the World, one would reasonably assume that she knew darn well the origins of salacious details that would later bubble up from her staff that are at the center of the current hacking scandal.
Brooks has been arrested, without charges filed at the moment, and has resigned. Aside from the outcome of Brooks individually, the higher lesson of the News of the World case is that tone at the top dictates the course of an organization. News of the World follows in the embarrassing footsteps of other organizations that have previously enjoyed the public trust, specifically Hewlett-Packard and Berkshire Hathaway.
In the case of HP, board chairman Patricia Dunn worked through intermediaries to obtain phone recordings of other HP board members and nine journalists. This scandal was the first of many blunders HP shareholders had to endure, including the misguided ‘leadership’ of Carly Fiorina who questioned the very premise of the honored and revered ‘Bill and Dave Way’ that made HP a legend and, later, the ethical violations attributed to the now-departed Mark Hurd.
As for Berkshire Hathaway, this corporate scandal involved the use of insider information by heir-apparent David Sokol. While Warren Buffett had specifically prohibited the practice of inner circle management proposing investment in a particular company for which a senior staffer had an existing or imminent financial interest, Sokol just couldn’t help himself. He went right ahead and bought a stake in Lubrizol prior to Berkshire Hathaway taking a $9 billion stake in the company. While Sokol’s actions were shameful, Buffett took a share of the blame in the public eye when he was less than forthcoming in initial press dealings as to the reasons for Sokol’s unexpected departure.
Left unchecked, poor ethical practices are likely to recur in organizations that have suffered at least one ethical breach. As such, Rupert Murdoch must be tireless in the coming days, weeks and months to assert affirmative control over the ethical leadership of his many other enterprises to ensure that such shameful events do not recur.