Elisabeth Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival could have been cribbed from the Vogel Wakefield rule book.Discussing the phone hacking scandal that engulfed News Corporation last year, she demonstrated that at least one Murdoch sees the fundamental importance of alignment between values and behaviour in the family business. She said that News Corporation was “asking itself some very significant and difficult questions about how some behaviours fell so far short of its values.” And she took issue with the assertion by her brother James, at a previous MacTaggart lecture, that “the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit”. Not that she denied the importance of profit; rather, “profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.”
It’s an open question whether the phone hacking scandal did indeed represent a gap between behaviour and values at News Corp. or whether the values themselves fell short of public expectations of a responsible business. I noted last year that Rupert Murdoch himself inclined to a view that deep down there were some honourable founding values in News Corp. that the company had subsequently betrayed. He said at the time, “Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this.”
Elisabeth Murdoch’s speech paid testimony to this underlying purpose. She spoke of her father’s vision to challenge the old world order – apparently on behalf of “the people” – and of her childhood understanding that her father’s business was “in pursuit of a greater good; a belief in better.” All of which would suggest that the eventual disgrace owed more to what the writer Margaret Heffernan calls a “wilful blindness” inside the company to the impact and behaviour of the business rather than an out-and-out absence of values per se. Values in themselves are not meaningful unless accompanied by a willingness to enact them and honest self-evaluation about one’s success in doing so.
But even allowing for that note of scepticism, Elisabeth Murdoch’s speech was highly significant for the passionate challenge she issued to the idea that business should have no higher purpose than to create value for shareholders:
“The absence of purpose, or of a moral language within government, media or business, could become one of the most dangerous own-goals for capitalism and for freedom… A mission to improve the world doesn’t turn business into some social agency. It makes business great.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. But it’s noteworthy to hear such sentiments coming from the heart of the Murdoch business.
Image courtesy Nordiske Mediedager.