In praise of … covering your back

I have read three very good pieces on the phone hacking trail. This one from Nick Davies, explains the power dynamics. James Doleman, who sat through the whole thing, explains why Andy Coulson was found guilty and why Rebekah Brooks wasn’t.

Put simply, Brooks said she didn’t know about the phone hacking or payments to officials and no-one could prove otherwise. There was, however, plenty of evidence against Coulson, so he was convicted.

All three articles give a flavour of how both Brooks and Coulson conducted themselves in the corporate world and their very different styles of management.

Here’s Nick Davies:

[Brooks] had remained oblivious to the whole saga, she said, even when she returned to the office the following week, never reading the story which the paper had published quoting the voicemail verbatim, never knowing that managing editor Stuart Kuttner was still hectoring Surrey police to confirm the tale. Kuttner, also on trial, was himself found not guilty of conspiring to hack phones.

Coulson always had more to deal with. While evidence of his three years as Brooks’s deputy was hard to find, there was a wealth of phone records, emails, voicemail recordings and Mulcaire notes about the hacking that happened when he was in charge, from January 2003 to January 2007. And Coulson had got himself dangerously close to the action.

At the News of the World, Coulson showed little enthusiasm for politics, according to former Downing Street officials, one of whom remembers him being invited for breakfast with Gordon Brown and showing so little interest in policy that the two men ended up talking about newspaper circulations. Brooks, however, was a different story.

Far more than Coulson, she played the game of power, exploiting her extraordinary social skills to build an unrivalled network of connections.

James Doleman on Brooks:

Brooks’ role, she told the jury, was to oversee the whole process; not to “police” the experienced journalists and news editors who worked under her.

Not inquiring may be questionable but it was not a crime.

And on Coulson:

Journalists and lawyers have been speculating for weeks about what the outcome of the phone-hacking trial would be, and of the dozens I have spoken to, not one thought Andy Coulson would be found anything but guilty. The former head of communications for Number 10 had a fine legal team, reluctantly paid for by News International after he sued them at the High Court, but it was not enough; the evidence of his involvement in hacking was too much and too strong.

Early on in the case a veteran journalist described Andy Coulson to me as a “good soldier”, and nothing I have seen in this marathon trial has ever led me to disagree with that assessment.

I’ve known a lot of good soldiers. And the trouble with good soldiers is that they tend to get shot.

The irony of the British tabloid press focusing on “one rogue editor” as being responsible for all phone-hacking will not be lost on Andy Coulson.

[T]here are worrying signs that the former News of the World editor will become the scapegoat for a Fleet Street culture that relied on the routine invasion of privacy not just to generate stories, but also to gain political influence.

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a rogue operator. Whether or not senior managers know about the detail, they are the ones who set the tone for the organisation. Employees rarely deviate far from this. If they do, they don’t last long. OK, some may be a little over-enthusiastic and cross a line but it’s usually within a framework of what is generally regarded as acceptable. The rogue trader fallacy is an attempt to individualise what is almost always a systemic problem. If managers set aggressive targets and tell people to do whatever it takes, they usually have some idea of what ‘whatever it takes’ means, even if they don’t (or choose not to) know exactly who is doing what.

The good corporate soldier can get taken in by all this. Hands on, leading from the front and keen to do a good job, they can lose their sense of perspective. It’s very easy, after a bit of pressure and the odd nudge, to find yourself putting your name to something which ends up screwing you. At which point, your empowering bosses are nowhere to be seen.

I know it’s unfashionable but covering your arse is really important in any organisation, even more so when managers claim to be delegating and empowering. Most of us will never be encouraged to do anything illegal but we often find ourselves pressured into bending the rules or doing stuff which isn’t quite right. Massage the figures, change a few lines in a report, cut the odd corner on health & safety, leave a few things out when you make your statement for the employment tribunal. I’m sure you have your own anecdotes.

Whenever you are cajoled or encouraged to do anything even a bit dodgy, it’s essential to make sure someone further up the hierarchy knows about it. For example, if you are asked to ‘just change the figures on the chart to make them look a bit better, then send it to the CEO’, send a note to your boss, telling him you did as he asked but that you don’t think the figures would stand up to detailed scrutiny. You never know, your chart might end up in the annual report! If someone picks it apart and finds it’s wrong, if it’s only got your name on it, it’s your problem. (And yes, that is a real example.)

I have no idea what really happened at News International and we will probably never find out. I would be very surprised, though, if phone hacking was a feature of Andy Coulson’s newsroom and no other. People don’t just decide to do this sort of thing. The culture grows up slowly, over time. This week, Coulson is being condemned by almost everybody but I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the guy. Is he really a rogue who would stop at nothing or just a soldier who went a bit too far and didn’t think to cover his rear?

Update: Two articles from Donna Boehme on a similar theme.

The ‘Rogue Employee’ and Dogs That Eat Homework includes this wonderful sample press release:

“We regret that the actions of a single rogue employee, Mr. BadGuy, were contrary to the values of this company. Our long ­established principles of integrity, honesty, truth, motherhood, and apple pie have been offended by the scandalous acts of Mr. BadGuy. We condemn the actions of Mr. BadGuy. Mr. BadGuy has left the building.”

The Rogue Employee Strikes Again is also a good read:

Since Barings, a long parade of well- known companies have jumped on the Rogue Employee bandwagon in times of trouble. These include: Wal-Mart, Barclays, SAC Capital, UBS, Societe Generale,6 JP Morgan, Pfizer, NewsCorp and GlaxoSmithKline.

The Rogue Employee defense is convenient because it instantly identifies a culprit, or culprits, and absolves “management” of any wrongdoing.

She also links to this excellent paper from Susan S Silbey at MIT, Rotten Apples or a Rotting Barrel:

Microsoft Word – Silbey, Ethics Education Comments.2

Professional and corporate misconduct derives, at least in part, from features of the organizations and social settings in which they take place. Those situations and settings provide both the opportunities and incentives for misconduct. The barrels have particular shapes and not all barrels produce the same kind or amount of rot.

A rotten barrel yields rotten apples. They don’t just go bad by themselves.


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4 Responses to In praise of … covering your back

  1. alberthr says:

    I don’t think it’s about protecting yourself in this way. If everyone did as you suggest the organisation would grind to a halt as everyone looked for cover. I think it’s about using your own moral compass to draw the line in the right place. Coulson wasn’t a ‘good’ soldier. He was a bad one because he had the opportunity to stop doing the wrong thing and chose not to take it.

  2. alinedobbie says:

    The hands off editorial management that is claimed for the lady begs the question that if she knew of none of this then what exactly was she doing as the editor …..I don’t think any of us general public have swallowed this…..just clever legal defence for her which cost millions and as for their lifestyle and the naive spouse….ah well one of Eton’s best but now you have to have academic prowess to go there, then you didn’t. Trouble is for us who care that this ‘clever’ woman was way too close to the levers of power for some time in UK and that was dangerous….and the current PM has yet again been shown to have had and still has apparently poor judgment.

  3. rogerh says:

    Mr C broke the 11th Commandment. Mrs Brooks studied her Corporate Catechism well and took advice from saintly figures. Perhaps she even has an Angel watching over her. She is definitely an operator whereas Mr C appears to be a footsoldier. What will be interesting is the sentence Mr C gets. That is the difference between an operator and a soldier.

  4. Dave Timoney says:

    As well as the contrast between Coulson (a hack) and Brooks (a schmoozer), there is an interesting comparison to be made here with George Entwhistle, a BBC lifer who was technically well-qualified for the DG role but completely at sea when trying to handle the politics outside the walls of Broadcasting House: the opposite of Brooks. In his case, empowerment was his undoing. An experienced arse-coverer would have issued an email to all staff on day one stating that in light of the Savile allegations any stories concerning sexual abuse would have to be cleared with the DG’s office before broadcast. This would have been contrary to his instincts and experience, but exactly the sort of thing that a political animal would have done.

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