Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Delegating like a boss

With the arrest of Rebekah Brooks dragging the whole covert media-political-police complex back into the spotlight, I've been thinking about the significance of story so far.

One of my favourite bits was James Murdoch's comically robotic testimony. What it revealed about the inner workings of the Murdochracy was, in some ways, less important than the light it shed on the standard operating procedure of dysfunctional management and unchecked authority in general.

We may never know exactly how much, or how little, the Murdochs authorised or knew, but James' carefully rehearsed testimony was an instructive reminder of how useful ambiguity and deniability can be to the powerful.

I'm reminded of Henry II's power struggle with Thomas à Becket. Henry didn't directly order anybody to get rid of Becket. He just happened to blurt out 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?' (or words to that effect). He couldn't be blamed if some of his underlings misinterpreted this as an order, obviously. To demonstrate how sorry he was for the "unauthorised" (but fortuitously convenient) actions of his subordinates, Henry performed public penance at Becket's tomb, where he probably said something about how it was the most humble day of his life.

Once they'd conveniently "misinterpreted" Henry's wishes, his loyal assasins were quietly dropped, like most of the News of the World employees, when they'd outlived their usefulness.

I suspect that for power-hungry and ruthless managers, effective (i.e. arse-covering) delegation is almost the precise opposite of the official version of effective delegation, as defined by businessballs.com:

A simple delegation rule is the SMART acronym or better still, SMARTER It's a quick checklist for proper delegation. Delegated tasks must be:
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed
  • Realistic
  • Timebound
  • Ethical
  • Recorded
Whether you're a king, a senior manager, or a home secretary, you don't want your instructions to be specific, measurable, clearly agreed, ethical, or, God forbid, recorded, if you need to maintain  wriggle room and expect your subordinates to take your flak, should anything go wrong (or go to exactly to the plan you don't want to admit having).

If anybody with authority over you starts issuing ill-defined, ambiguous instructions, and you don't have very good reasons to trust them completely, it's probably time to start being very afraid.

Although I've no time for the Murdochs' feudal management style, I'm trying to keep a more balanced view of what's been going on than the extreme "all journalists are amoral scum", or "they're trying to muzzle press freedom" commentary that's accompanied Levison. At one extreme, apologists for the tabloid press have banged on about how it was OK for News of the World journos to bend the rules a bit, because it's in the vital public interest that journalists should be able to uncover wrongdoing and duplicity in high places.

But then you look at some of the "public interest" stories that caused all the fuss in the first place. Clive Goodman hacking the royals' voice mail? It's not as if the Royal Family are remotely important. They're just celebrities. They don't matter. They did, back in Henry II's day, when the monarch was the real power in the land, implicated in murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less. But if the present Queen, in addition to her normal ceremonial duties, has engaged a hit man to take out Rowan Williams, News International haven't yet shared this interesting information with the public. Which is odd, because it's the kind of profitable story guaranteed to sell millions of copies to the sort of tabloid readers who are already convinced that the Royals had Diana knocked off and to jolt the rest of us out of our complacency about the criminal mastermind lurking on our stamps.

And no, exposing a footballer who's cheating on his wife isn't just the same as uncovering the Watergate conspiracy, however often you repeat the phrase "public interest". As for hacking into the voice mails of grieving families, anybody with the remotest flicker of empathy for other human beings can already understand that somebody who's gone through the murder of a loved one, or the disappearance of a child must be in shock, devastated, experiencing more hurt than most of us have experienced in our own lives. We don't need journalists to tell us these things - the bare facts are enough, without the grief porn. Sticking a telephoto lens into victims' faces, bullying them for statements about how they're feeling, stalking their families, or spying on their private communications isn't in the "public interest" and the journalists who do it, along with the editors and proprietors who bully them into doing it, are scum, pure and simple.

But it would be too convenient, especially for politicians and other powerful members of society who would like to evade scrutiny, to smear all journalists because some tabloid hacks have spied and bribed and bullied in pursuit of stories that were no more important than gossip. It's certainly not in the public interest to subject journalists to political pressure (remember Ivan Lewis', sinister, but fortunately doomed, plan to have naughty journalists "struck off" some central register of officially-approved news gatherers?).

From The Sunday Times' campaign on the effects of Thalidomide to Veronica Guerin, who exposed Dublin's drug barons and paid with her life for it, there have also been plenty tough, dedicated and conscientious journalists out there who have served the public interest in the true sense. They can pop up anywhere too - God knows, I don't have much time for the Daily Mail, but credit where it's due, Mail journalists kicked up enough fuss to stop the Stephen Lawrence case being quietly, and conveniently, forgotten and the world's a better place for that (I generally avoid linking to the Mail, but this is one of the rare cases when they thoroughly deserve the traffic).

A chilling effect on the pursuit of real public interest stories is one of the possible effects of Leveson. We might argue about where the bar would need to be set, but almost everybody can think of crimes or abuses of power that might be horrific enough to make even a bit of illicit surveillance forgivable, if it was the only way to expose a greater evil.

The other problem is the distraction - the human interest and symbolism of David Cameron riding the horse loaned to Rebekah Brooks by her chums in the Metropolitan Police, keeps the focus on this particular nexus of cronyism, but distracts from other, equally serious, nodes, such as the blacklist of construction workers allegedly drawn up by the police or security services and funded by a shady front organisation set up by the construction industry, in order to keep people who blow the whistle on health and safety abuses from ever getting another job in the industry.

It's hard not to relish the ritual humiliation of bullying, mendacious gossip-mongers, bent coppers and sleazy spin-doctors and it's encouraging to think that their excesses might be curbed, but if we're left with a cowed, tightly-controlled press, we might find that things get even worse, with not only media barons' particular mates escaping scrutiny, but the whole of the political establishment, its associated bureaucracy and all their cronies. At least our rulers do have to worry, at least for a moment, about the rule of law and public opinion.

A compliant "Union of Soviet Journalists"-style authority-friendly profession wouldn't be a good outcome. A situation where people as influential as Rebekah Brooks and above were subject to the rule of law, just the same as anybody who doesn't happen to be on first name terms with the prime minister or police chiefs, would be. The problem isn't the journalistic profession, but hierarchical organisations and influential networks that put the powerful, whether they're media tycoons, editors, or whoever, beyond the law.
Without effective press scrutiny, we'd be moving even further back towards the sort of feudal hierarchy that Henry II would have recognised, where those in authority only had to worry about keeping a few powerful allies, like the barons and the church, on side and the rest of the powerless population could go hang. Personally, I think we've gone too far back in that direction already, however much we kid ourselves ourselves that we've left the age of abject deference to authority behind.