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Margaret Heffernan

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Murdoch's Willful Blindness

Posted: 01/05/2012 12:19

Last July I argued that Rupert Murdoch was guilty of willful blindness in his failure to see how pervasive phone hacking had become in his organisation, in his refusal to investigate it and his refusal to acknowledge what other people found. Now, it appears, the Culture Committee agrees with me.

My book, Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril shows that willful blindness has been with us for a long time. It emerged in Victorian times as a legal concept that argues that when there is information we could have, and should have, but somehow manage not to have, we are nonetheless responsible. While most often used to prosecute cases of money laundering and drug trafficking, it was used most sensationally in the government's case against Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and Chairman Ken Lay. This is perhaps the media's Enron moment.

The key driver of Murdoch's blindness has been power. Power encases its recipients in a bubble.

Some of that bubble has a physical reality: encased in limousines, private jets and hotel suites, very powerful individuals rarely inhabit the same world as the rest of us. Moreover, academic studies have shown that those with power are more optimistic, more abstract in their thinking and more confident that they're right. So mentally they're in a bubble too.

But perhaps most potently in Murdoch's case, powerful people can't escape a structural trap: those who hold power are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear and hide from them what they imagine they don't want to hear. On one level, this is not personal; it afflicts everyone. Ambitious executives want to please their bosses - so they deliver the good news and bury the bad. It's assumed that conflict is undesirable so anything that might provoke it mysteriously disappears. Leaders themselves need do nothing to encourage this: the ambitious of those around them is enough to ensure that they are surrounded by smiling bearers of success stories.

Murdoch isn't the first and he won't be the last to be caught in this power trap. John Browne, when he led BP, was famously ensnared in it, blind to the dangerous operations which led to accidents and fatalities. His later, rather bromidic memoir, acknowledged as much: "I wish someone had challenged me and been brave enough to say: "We need to ask more disagreeable questions."

The truth is that it takes individuals of terrific integrity and fortitude to resist the willful blindness that comes with power. Tony Blair didn't. John Browne didn't. And now the Culture Committee concurs: Rupert Murdoch didn't either.

 
 
 
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