Paul Holmes 19 Jul 2011 // 6:59AM GMT
I suggested over the weekend that I thought News Corp’s response to the phone hacking, police bribing, political corruption scandal had improved somewhat since the media company called in Edelman for crisis counsel, and I still think that’s the case. But today’s parliamentary hearings in the UK—must-see TV this afternoon—will be critical. I mentioned in my previous post that I thought the hearings had the potential to produce a Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessep moment, as Rupert and James Murdoch are forced to choose between acknowledging that either he knew precisely what was going on at his UK newspapers or that they couldn’t control their own employees. Neither option is particularly attractive, although only one is likely to result in criminal charges; unfortunately, that one is also the least credible option, given the sums of money involved and the lengths to which the company has gone to cover up the scandal over the past eight years. This New York Times story makes it clear that the company has gone to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to “quarantine the damage” from the various allegations against the News of the World and its sister publications. “Evidence indicating that The News of the World paid the police for information was not handed over to the authorities for four years. Its parent company paid hefty sums to those who threatened legal action, on condition of silence. The tabloid continued to pay reporters and editors whose knowledge could prove embarrassing even after they were fired or arrested for hacking. A key editor’s computer equipment was destroyed, and e-mail evidence was lost. Internal advice to accept responsibility was ignored.” What I find astonishing is that a media organization that specialized in bringing scandal to light—by any means necessary—believed that it was immune from the implications of the Age of Transparency, that it could avoid indefinitely the same kind of scrutiny to which it was subjecting celebrities, politicians, schoolchildren and terror victims. The company’s strategy has been consistent: admit only those charges for which there is overwhelming evidence already in the public domain, and deny any further wrongdoing. It’s a strategy that has led to a steady flow of new revelations, and it’s a strategy that runs counter to the “tell-it-all, tell-it-now” advice that most crisis communications experts would offer. The Murdochs must abandon that strategy at today’s hearings. If there is further wrongdoing, not yet uncovered, the Murdochs must bring it to the attention of authorities. If there are additional victims of phone hacking, including (as has been alleged) victims of terrorist attacks, the Murdochs must identify them—preferably in their opening statements, before MPs start asking questions. If there were other high-ranking News Corp employees involved in unethical or illegal activity, or in covering that activity up, the Murdochs must identify them. If News Corp’s US media outlets, from the New York Post to Fox News, engaged in similar unethical or illegal practices, the Murdochs must say so. Because if the steady drip, drip, drip of revelations continues after today’s testimony, and if it later becomes apparent that the Murdochs lied, dissembled, obfuscated, or failed to reveal everything they knew—or even suspected—about the true extent of wrongdoing within their company, their credibility will be utterly destroyed and the legal and public relations consequences will be severe.