I worked for News Corporation for about two and a half years, until the end of 2009. At first I gloried in the title of Vice President of MySpace, Safety and Security, Europe. I had insisted on being part-time at first but when, in the end, I declined to convert to a full-time contract I was kept on as a consultant.
I was a little anxious about going to work for the guys who owned Fox News, appeared to want to own everything else and ate trade unions for breakfast. However, MySpace was then the global Numero Uno in the social networking space, and social networking was clearly the next big thing.
MySpace was embarking on an ambitious expansion plan outside of the USA. I was keen to learn about social networking from them. They seemed eager to learn from me. More to the point I was invited to climb on board by Hemanshu Nigam, a former US Federal Prosecutor who had latterly been Microsoft's safety hotshot in Seattle, and was now a Senior Vice President with MySpace. I had worked with Hemu before. We got on well. All in all the proposition was irresistible.
As I started going in to the office, both in London and in Los Angeles, my antennae were super tuned, on high alert. Why was everyone being so polite and friendly? This went well beyond the Have a Nice Day banality that lots of Europeans find so hard to embrace. Obviously it was all part of a carefully choreographed plot to lull me into a false sense of congeniality. Eventually the truth would out, the underlying conspiracy to destroy democracy would be revealed and I would have to flee to the hills to join the Resistance, wiser and more valuable to it because I had been closer to the heart of The Beast.
But no. On the contrary, as I got to know people better it became ever plainer that the prevailing ethos amongst the great majority I met was decidedly liberal. Hampstead and Beverley Hills. Two suburbs. One outlook. I made some lasting friendships. There was one rather strange young woman who had chosen a picture of herself for her profile in which she was sporting a military strength rifle that looked like it could stop a rhino at five miles but that was the nearest I ever got to meeting anyone with the kind of leanings Glenn Beck would admire.
Moreover, and here's the real point of this blog, it was made clear to me and to everyone around me that Mr Murdoch Senior, Chairman and CEO of News Corp, had been explicit about the importance he attached to making MySpace as safe as it could possibly be.
Unlike a number of other large internet companies, Murdoch completely rejected a laissez faire philosophy in relation to content appearing on his site. He could have chosen to take the view, as many of his competitors did and still do, that he had zero responsibility for it. He could have decided, as many of his competitors did and still do, to take advantage of the EU's and US's mere conduit laws by which an internet intermediary has no legal liability for anything put on their site by third parties unless and until they have actual knowledge of it. Rupert Murdoch didn't. He wanted bad stuff proactively rooted out, accepting this might expose him to legal challenges.
Just before News Corp acquired MySpace, and shortly after the acquisition, there had been some terrible incidents involving predatory stalkers who had connected with youngsters via the site. Murdoch was clear. He wanted that ended, forever. No repeats. That's when Hemu came down from Seattle. A great many people were employed by MySpace simply to focus on safety and enforcing the site's terms and conditions. A new system was introduced to make it impossible, or at any rate a great deal harder, to connect with someone you did not already know. There was zero tolerance of pornography and a wide range of other forms of anti-social behaviour.
It didn't stop there. MySpace developed algorithms and other techniques for finding youngsters who had lied about their age to get on the site. Their accounts were swiftly terminated. The company also insisted on using a blocking list to prevent anybody posting links to any web sites known to contain child abuse images. They helped develop a US-wide system which allowed MySpace to seek out anyone with a conviction for sex offences and kick them off.
Taking a strong line against paedophiles and sex offenders generally is probably not going to do any significant harm to your company's image or sales. However, in the libertarian climes of California and the internet what MySpace was then doing was definitely different, and it was pioneering. Way ahead of its time. I wish some other large West Coast companies were today as energetic in pursuit of online safety as MySpace was, and maybe still is for all I know.
I have no doubt MySpace had in part been driven to be so proactive in the online child protection space because of the at times intense political and media pressure it came under. Maybe advertisers were getting twitchy about a site that continued to attract the ongoing attention of 49 States' Attorneys General acting in concert. Social networking was still new, lots of people did not get it and MySpace was the 800lb gorilla. But equally I have no doubt that MySpace's safety values became deeply embedded in the company's thinking because word had come straight from the top.
It is true that as Facebook began sweeping all before it and MySpace went into relative decline elements within the company began to panic. They tried to blame the safety guys for imposing excessively high costs or excessively restrictive policies but, at least while I was there, all the safety systems stayed in place.
Incidentally I never believed the safety angle in any way explained MySpace's fall from grace. People did not desert MySpace or refuse to join it because they couldn't find enough porn on it, or because there were too few sex offenders hanging out there. Facebook was newer, cleaner, simpler and initially, to kick start it, the site allowed you to bask in the reflected glory of an association with Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE. And by the way Facebook now follows policies which are strikingly similar to those which MySpace inaugurated.
I never met Mr Murdoch Senior, and from what I have seen, read and heard about his world view I'm guessing we are unlikely ever to become soul mates. And ok, it may not be saying very much merely to record that he is strongly in favour of doing the right thing when it comes to child protection and safety on the internet. But I know many companies still strutting their stuff that continue to do a great deal less than MySpace did when I was with them. As we say in Yorkshire I speak as I find.
It looks very much like a number of things went wrong in one of the companies owned by News Corp. Could and should Murdoch have known or anticipated that phone hacking or bribing police officers was or might be going on?
I think it would be harsh to criticise someone for failing to remind their staff that they ought not to break the law. Where things might be more open to doubt is in relation to the prevailing climate within a company. There senior management have a very definite responsibility to set the tone. In the case of MySpace that responsibility was discharged with zero scope for ambiguity.
As the various enquiries, investigations and possible prosecutions wend their way no doubt we will find out what happened and why. It is hard to see how this whole saga can end well for them but should News Corp go under or be severely damaged by Hackgate there will be at least one corner of England that will forever harbour a few small regrets.
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