Spielberg’s The Post offers a masterclass in public leadership

By Martin Vogel

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee celebrate the court’s decision in 1971 to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg’s film The Post combines three themes close to my heart: leadership, journalism and power – with an interesting gender dimension overlaying all three.

The film portrays the days in 1971 when the Washington Post faced a dilemma whether to publish leaked material, the Pentagon Papers, showing how successive American presidents had deceived the public about the country’s purpose and prospects in Vietnam. The scoop already belonged to the New York Times. But an opportunity to catch up arose for the Post when Nixon’s government obtained an injunction against the Times, and the Post obtained the material independently.

There have been criticisms that it is perverse of the film-makers to focus on the role of the Post in the the Pentagon Papers affair, when the Times was the bigger player and took the earlier risk. However, that is to misconstrue the drama in which the Pentagon Papers affair is merely the MacGuffin on which hangs a tale of press freedom and gender politics. It is precisely because the Post was the lesser player that it merits attention. It’s the story of how a faltering business, guided by a woman in a male-dominated world, steps into the big league and transforms itself into a pillar of democracy. The whole episode serves as a dress rehearsal for Watergate, when the Post made the running in holding Nixon to account and ultimately brought down his presidency.

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Murdoch talks values

By Martin Vogel

Elisabeth Murdoch

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.”

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When spin is not enough

By Martin Vogel

The hardest word?

I beg your forebearance in returning so soon to the leadership failings at News International. But no sooner did I publish my last post than it was overtaken by events. Rebekah Brooks saw the error of her ways and Rupert Murdoch issued this apology.  Perhaps a retweet of my post reached their Twitter feeds.

Andrew Hill summarises the reasons why the timing and nature of this apology is unlikely to help Murdoch:

Mr Murdoch’s audience is understandably confused. If you set any store by the fad for corporate bosses to demonstrate their “authenticity” then the “authentic” Mr Murdoch was the ruthless mogul of July 3, the day before the outrage over the hacking of murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone broke, or the smiling patriarch, toughing it out with his arm round Ms Brooks earlier this week…

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Phone hacking and social value

By Martin Vogel

Thank you
The final edition of the News of the World

For some months I’ve had occasional thoughts of writing a blog post about the phone hacking scandal at News International. The reason I never got round to doing so until now is instructive. At some level, I doubted the point of deconstructing News International’s venality as this has appeared so self-evident to me since I was a schoolboy delivering newspapers that it seemed unremarkable.

In recent days, the pace of events has been so fast and the volume of commentary so large, that I doubted that I had anything distinctive to contribute. However, the affair prompts me to pull together some thoughts on the social purpose of business and why I’m convinced this is an increasingly important focus of leadership.

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Public value in a commercial space

By Mark Wakefield

Primrose Hill
The public valuing the public space at Primrose Hill

Last week we learnt that, despite “Project Merlin”, bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises fell short of expectations by some £2bn in the first quarter of this year, only adding to fears that we are set for a sluggish recovery.  This together with the news that the Chief Executives of both Barclays and HSBC have been awarded £9m in pay apiece will have done little to assuage public anger over bankers’ behaviour.    What is so strange in all this is that the banks are apparently oblivious both to the public mood and to what seems to be the makings of an emerging consensus amongst politicians and policy makers that business must urgently rediscover its social purpose.  Suffice it to say that when as luminous a business luminary as Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter argues that capitalism is facing a crisis of legitimacy you know that something is up.

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Another crisis in public service broadcasting

By Martin Vogel

Another crisis in public service broadcasting
Lord Reith.

Goodness gracious, what would Reith have thought?

Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, would certainly not have shared the bemusement that many have felt at the extent of media coverage and public outrage focussed on the Sachsgate scandal.  He would have viscerally appreciated why the national conversation has been dominated by reaction to two boorish entertainers, handsomely paid by the public purse, using the public airwaves to humiliate a young woman in obscene phone calls to her grandfather, a much-loved actor.

The clarity of Reith’s original mission for the BBC to inform, educate and entertain pointed to some degree of moral purpose which still shapes people’s expectations of the organisation.  Since the last renewal of the BBC’s charter at the beginning of 2007, the Reithian mission has given way to six, rather more mushy, “public purposes“.  These could justify almost any activity the BBC chooses to undertake – and, inside the BBC, they do, if we are to judge by Russell Brand’s and Jonathan Ross’s antics and the tardiness of the management’s response.

What is strange is that this is still the case, given everything that has happened in recent years: Hutton, Queengate and the phone-in scandals.  Last week’s events are an object lesson in how an organisation in reputational crisis fails to learn the lessons of its previous mistakes.  Banks, take note.

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