Rupert Murdoch, facing his first grilling from a parliamentary select committee, was being briefed this weekend by lawyers and a public relations expert who helped salvage the reputation of American chat show host David Letterman when he was blackmailed over a series of affairs with work colleagues.
The media mogul has drafted in Steven Rubenstein, whose clients also include Hollywood actor Robert De Niro, to offer advice on how best to present himself during the hearing on Tuesday.
Murdoch is also being briefed by Dan Tench, one of the UK’s leading media lawyers. Next week’s parliamentary hearing, taking place in the Boothroyd room, is set to be a moment of high drama watched by millions.
On Saturday night, claims that Murdoch senior would not feel the need to be schooled in preparation for the select committee hearing were dismissed by sources at News Corporation. One said: “He will be deep in briefings all weekend, as you would expect.”
Meanwhile, as Murdoch immerses himself with his multi-million pound team of advisers, most of the MPs who will ask the questions were going about their normal business this weekend.
It is understood that Labour MP Tom Watson is working through the weekend on his lines of probing with party colleagues outside the committee. However, Labour MP Paul Farrelly said that talk of the committee convening over the weekend was “crap” and that he would be spending some of the weekend digging up potatoes. Coffey added that she would be attending a pea festival, an event in a local village where the children dress up as peas.
Farrelly said it would be business as usual – to a degree. “We will meet on Tuesday morning and first thing we need to agree on is a 100-page report on football. Then we will have a short meeting with clerks of the house to discuss issues of sub judice, and the clerks will prepare background and suggested questions and people say what they want to pursue.
There is a sense of the seasoned professionals versus the gentlemen amateurs about all this. OK, Rupert Murdoch has more incentive to prepare as he is the one on the other end of the grilling but the MPs’ lack of preparation doesn’t bode well.
This cult of the gentleman amateur pervades some parts of the public sector but you also find it in private sector organisations too. Many senior executives think that, if they read the briefs prepared by their minions just before the meeting, or even during it, their massive intellects and ability to think on their feet will get them through. Too much knowledge and detail might even be a handicap, they tell themselves. It might cloud their minds and inhibit the strategic and innovative thinking at which they excel.
Of course, what actually happens is an unfocused and badly informed discussion, where ill-prepared executives struggle to get to grips with the detail, fail to make a decision and refer the matter to the next meeting, while they send their minions off to gather more data….which they then don’t read and….well, you know how this goes. Oh and the strategic, innovative thinking is never much in evidence either.
I had a go at the MPs’ interviewing skills last week but, as a couple of people pointed out, the performance of parliamentary committees is about more than just the skills of the individual members. How they work together is just as important.
Teams, just like individuals, need to build their capacity and capability. They only get good at working together by practicing working together. This may sound obvious but it’s often a revelation to members of executive boards. Those teams that understand this can improve their performance very quickly. I know of one organisation in which the executive team lock themselves way for three days several times a year. Sometimes they spend the time working on strategies for the future, other times they tackle more current operational issues. But, crucially, over the three days, they work together and jointly produce stuff. As a result, they have become used to working together and their regular meetings are much more productive as a result. They are a well-functioning team because they have practiced being one.
A short period of preparation and a briefing from functionaries will not make people perform as an effective team. The MPs are about to face one of the cleverest and most ruthless businessmen of the era. At the very least, they need some time to work out a common strategy. Alas, as many senior executives do, they have fallen into the gentleman amateur trap – they seem to think that they can somehow just wing it and everything will be fine.
That might have worked a couple of decades ago but nowadays, if you run an amateur operation you get amateur results, especially if you are up against a professional like Rupert Murdoch. To work effectively as a team against someone like that, they need to practice being a team and prepare their strategy together.
Perhaps the committee will get lucky tomorrow and land some good punches on Mr Murdoch. More likely, though, it will be another round of unfocused questioning like we saw last week. In a team that doesn’t prepare together, everyone comes to the table with his or her own agenda. The result is a disjointed meeting. If that’s what we get tomorrow, the Murdoch’s may well walk out without so much as a scratch.