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News of the World saga underlines importance of whistleblowing

Employers should embrace, encourage a culture where reporting wrongdoing is encouraged

By Todd Humber

As a journalist, it’s stunning to watch the demise of the News of the World, the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper that has been gracing newsstands in the United Kingdom since 1843.

Not that I was a big fan of the paper, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact it was the most-read English language newspaper in the world.

After 168 years, the publication is no more. It wasn’t brought down by the economic downturn, declining advertising or plunging readership — the all-too-common hallmarks of the demise of newspapers in recent years.

No, the News of the World was extremely profitable and popular. What brought it down was a toxic culture that saw some editors and reporters going to illegal extremes in chasing stories. And management turned a blind eye to the practice, either unwilling to believe it was wrong or unaware of the extent of the behaviour. Now, the paper is facing numerous police investigations.

There’s no doubt some of the staff knew what they were doing — which included allegedly hacking into the voicemail of murder victims, celebrities, royals and even dead British soldiers — was wrong.

The most egregious case involved Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who went missing in 2002 and was later found dead. The newspaper accessed Dowler’s voicemail on her mobile phone, and deleted messages so that additional messages could be left. Not only did the paper potentially destroy evidence by deleting the messages, they also gave the family false hope the girl was alive since it appeared she was retrieving her voicemail.

The only question is why some of those staff didn’t come forward or, if they did, why management didn’t act decisively to stop the behaviour.

“The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself…wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued,” said James Murdoch, chair of News Corporation, in a statement about the decision to permanently stop the presses.

The corporation — the second largest media conglomerate in the world, with properties such as Harper Collins, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — is left with a pretty big black eye. In cases like this, there’s always an undercurrent of guilty by association.

Murdoch should make it a priority to ensure News Corp.’s 51,000 employees worldwide know it’s safe to speak up when they spot wrongdoing. In his statement, he said the company is doing its “utmost to fix (mistakes), atone for them and make sure they never happen again.”

It will be interesting to watch what, exactly, News Corp. does to ensure that happens.

The demise of the News of the World is an expensive lesson in the importance of whistleblowing. But it underscores the importance of HR professionals creating and nurturing a culture where whistleblowers are encouraged and protected.

Canadian HR Reporter will have more on whistleblowing, and helping managers build and support a culture that encourages it, in the Sept. 12 issue.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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