We explore the language of leadership of global media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2010, the year before the phone-hacking scandal in the UK came to public attention. Subsequent public enquiries in the UK exposed unethical conduct by staff of News Corporation, a global corporation whose Chairman and CEO was Rupert Murdoch. We focus on the ethical climate fashioned by ‘A Letter from Rupert Murdoch’ that appeared in the opening pages of the annual report of News Corporation for the year ended 30 June 2010. Plausibly, Murdoch’s discourse in that letter helped condition the inapt, unethical conduct of News Corporation staff. We highlight the cultural and ethical signs that were embedded in Murdoch’s letter and which reflected the company’s tone at the top and ethical values. We identify signs of a perverse leadership thinking that possibly help explain the inappropriate cultural values and ethical behaviours that were revealed subsequently in evidence presented to public inquiries.
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Montgomery (2008, p. 5), writing in the Harvard Business Review, asserts:
The CEO is the one who chooses a company’s identity, who has responsibility for declining certain opportunities and pursuing others. In this sense he or she serves as the guardian of organizational purpose, watching over the entity, guiding its course … the vigil the CEO keeps must be a constant one.
In response to an earlier statement by Murdoch that he was ‘humbled’ to give an apology to one of the victim families of the phone hacking, Lane (2011) observed that ‘Of all the words one never thought to find in the vicinity of Murdoch, “humble[d]”, especially in the passive voice, would top the list’.
We raise the issue of ‘deliberate ignorance’ or ‘willful blindness’ to support our contention that the words of corporate leaders matter rhetorically and therefore require close scrutiny. Our interest is not in the legal status of such a rhetorical move because, as Heffernan (2011) observes, this does not constitute a legal defence.
For economy of exposition, we also refer to his letter hereafter simply as a CEO letter.
In companies in which the CEO and board Chair roles are vested in a single individual, especially a long-serving one, the possibility of insidious dysfunctions such as groupthink and its handmaiden, willful blindness, are ominously present (see Heffernan 2011). This seems likely to be ever more so given that Murdoch was the founder of the present News Corporation as a major global company. Centralizing power in the hands of one person is problematic enough, but (as a reviewer of this article observed) Murdoch is elderly. Thus issues of cognitive impairment and succession become especially salient for the company. This is where a strongly independent board would be ever more crucial.
The issue of who actually crafted of the letter was raised by a reviewer of this article, who offered the following argument to support Murdoch’s authorship:
I think it is highly relevant to this particular case that Mr Murdoch commenced his career as a journalist … and is spoken of as having been a good journalist…. Because of his background as a journalist, he (more than most chairmen/CEOs) is more likely to write his CEO letter himself. Judging by his arrogance…in the CEO letter, and elsewhere, would he consider anyone else more competent to write the letter? I suspect not. …In this particular case, I wouldn’t presume he crafted the letter with public relations, legal, and management assistants.
Although close readings are rarely exhaustive or objective, they are intended to serve as a springboard for much-needed countervailing perspectives on corporate power and accountability.
Murdoch’s CEO letter is stylistically different from CEO letters published by most corporate leaders, and is somewhat akin to items usually published in the tabloid press. There is an excessive use of pronouns, contractions, and repetitions, including in the form of ‘call-outs’ or sidebars. Timuçin (2010) analyses the differences between tabloids and broadsheets, concluding that tabloids use more biased and involved/emotive language. A reviewer of this article noted that the letter’s ‘tabloidism’ is unsurprising, given the journalistic background of Murdoch and his probable authorship of the letter, and that the tabloid style seems inconsistent with the purpose of a CEO letter in a corporate accountability context.
Instance #14 of the use of ‘I’ is replicated in a ‘call-out’, sidebar text that is shown in BLOCK CAPITALS in the Appendix. We do not count this use twice.
Murdoch was born on 11 March 1931 (see http://www.biography.com/people/rupert-murdoch-9418489, accessed 28 August, 2012). As best we can ascertain, his letter was written in July or early August, 2010. Thus, at the time of writing, Murdoch was in his 80th year.
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[‘Call-out’ or sidebar text is shown in BLOCK CAPITALS]
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Amernic, J., Craig, R. Leadership Discourse, Culture, and Corporate Ethics: CEO-speak at News Corporation. J Bus Ethics 118, 379–394 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1506-0