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“Events, dear boy. Events”

“Events, dear boy. Events” opined Harold McMillan when asked what is most likely to blow governments off course. For someone who has played a substantive role in shaping the global news agenda and knowing more than anyone about how the unpredictable becomes the unmanageable, Rupert Murdoch has played a pretty poor game in dealing with the events of the last fortnight.

The Guardian’s story alleging that News of the World journalists hacked into the voicemail of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler and had deleted voicemail messages was the trigger point for the tsunami of opprobrium which rightly rained down first on NoTW, then News International and subsequently News Corporation. From high and mightly news media mogul to the ‘humble’, shaving-foam smeared old man mumbling on global television.  Events, dear boy.

But in communication terms, what should we make of News Corp’s reaction?

Strategically and strangely inept on the whole. While dramatic, the closure of the NoTW simply looked like a tactic to preserve News Corp’s long-running bid for the 61% of BSkyB that it doesn’t already own. It also beggared belief that Rebekah Brooks, who has editor of the NoTW when Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, had not resigned. If, as reported, her resignation was offered but rejected, then Rupert Murdoch has only himself to blame.

History is already judging Murdoch Senior’s ill-advised comment that saving Brooks was his number one priority. Throwaway line or serious assessment of his priorities, Murdoch’s comment looks increasingly like his Gerald Ratner moment – crass, offensive and highly damaging. Not just when you balance the fate of one woman against that of hundreds, not to mention a 150 year old newspaper, but also in what it shows about the attitude of the sender.  Just like Mrs Thatcher’s other favourite industrialist, Sir Jeffrey Sterling – who famously returned from holidaying in the Caribbean to address media after the Townsend Thoresen disaster still wearing his Bermuda shorts – Rupert Murdoch arrived palpably out of touch with British emotion.

This only emphasises how News Corporation’s response has been characterised by naivety. The company didn’t appear to grasp the rapid change in sentiment towards the family and the company; they didn’t grasp that fast-moving media-driven events generate a life of their own; and, most astonishingly, they didn’t seem to recognise that long-held hostilities toward the Murdochs would be used to give the story a (frequently unjustified) life of its own.

Given Rupert Murdoch and many of the people who work for him wrote the book on much that is now coming home to haunt him, this is doubly bizarre. The Murdoch’s have made billions of dollars by either creating or exploiting a media feeding frenzy and yet they appear not to have seen this coming.  Inexcusable.

The cowboy that swaggered into London last weekend has been replaced by the penitent who visited the parents of Milly Dowler, head in hands apparently, and ‘umbled ‘imself before the mighty Home Affaris Select Committee. The change in strategy by News Corp, including full-page adverts in newspapers throughout last week, was though, too late. Apologies and more apologies – but the NoTW and News Corp have set a ball rolling now that they have lost the power to stop.

And more than that.  The myth of invincibility has gone. Like any brand, much of what people believed about News Corp was in the legend. The power, the influence.  Up in smoke.  Now we drag them to give testimony before people they would have laughed at before.  And we can.  And they did.

News Corp will be praying for another news story to knock this one of the top of the new agenda – as the world’s top media executives they will understand that news is relative.  And, unlike most brands in trouble, they have the power to try to find one, and run it.

But the lesson is that brands are fragile, even those that we think are the most powerful.  Something small and local blew up in the face of Mr Murdoch Snr and his entourage, and, believing their own hype, they let it spiral out of control.  The cost was huge, even in the short term, with the loss of the Sky TV deal.  Long-term who knows what it might mean.  The old man brushed off the shaving foam; he won’t brush off the consequences of under-estimating a crisis so easily.

James Hunt and Toby Nicol

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