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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Why Murdoch is “responsible” for the phone-hacking scandal

Rupert Murdoch’s weak appearance before a British parliamentary committee yesterday was littered with vague talk of “responsibility” and flat denials of responsibility.  Murdoch made the unpersuasive and very large claim that he is in no way responsible for the unethical and illegal acts of his employees.

In what way, though, is Murdoch responsible?

Responsibility is a key concept in ethics and law. But the concept is complex. The trouble is that there are many types of responsibility — legal, criminal, moral, etc. As well, responsibility becomes controversial when we go beyond the acts of individuals to the behaviour of people in groups and large corporations. Is the German nation as a whole, yesterday and today, responsible for the Nazis atrocities? Am I, as a Canadian, responsible for the unjustice done to Canadian natives in the past and even today?

Where long chains of command are in question, as in the army or in a global media corporation, responsibility can become diffuse. Responsibility may be spread across many levels of the organization until it seems that no one is really to blame.

The distinction between direct and indirect responsibility helps somewhat. In a chain of command, those employees who are directly connected to the irresponsible acts may be said to be directly responsible. They either committed the acts themselves or they allowed such actions to occur. Perhaps they encouraged such acts. Higher up the chain of command, division chiefs and ultimately the CEO may be said to be indirectly responsible. This is the idea that when anyone accepts a major supervisory and operational position, that person takes on an indirect responsibility for what happens on their “watch” — whether or not they knew about the questionable actions.

Military generals, heads of large organizations, heads of governments, and other people in similar roles cannot simply hold their employees to be responsible and eschew all and any responsibility for themselves. We would not accept, for example, the head of BP Oil to disown all responsibility for bad practices by his employees — practices that caused a massive oil spill. So why should the public allow the Murdochs to play a similar “get out of jail” card?

The sort of responsibility that applies to Rupert Murdoch might be called “overall operational responsibility.” Leaders of organizations, while perhaps not directly involved in the daily work of employees, are still responsible to make sure their senior officers do not allow unethical or illegal practices to happen, and to make sure that adequate monitoring systems are in place.

So, even if it were true that Rupert Murdoch did not know of certain illegal acts, or that he was surprised by how some of his journalists acted, he cannot reject all and any responsibility for what occurred at his media properties.

It is not enough for Murdoch to apologize and say how he has been humbled. He also needs to explicitly acknowledge his operational responsibility for this sordid scandal.

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