Accountability: Musings on Murdoch

July 20, 2011

As the Rupert Murdoch/News Corps/phone hacking scandal unfolds, I’ve been thinking lot about accountability. And with the focus on Murdoch and Murdoch Jr., it seems the media and public have been too. When I saw the CNN headline “Murdoch denies ultimate responsibility,” I knew I had to write a blog post to connect the dots in my head taking me back to a school project I had my senior year of college, and the learnings I think can be applied to this scandal. 

Now, you may not think a class on torture sounds very….appealing? But, I must say it was one of the most interesting and intriguing classes I took at the UO Honors college. For ten weeks we explored the torture memos of the Bush Administration and the various national and international laws surrounding the contentious issues of waterboarding, false imprisonment, military tribunals, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the death penalty and other such related topics. The class culminated with a mock trial of “The Bush Six,” six former officials in the Bush Administration, with half of us serving on the prosecution and half on the defense as these officials were charged with committing war crimes. I won’t get into the line of reasoning and evidence we had to use to convict on the prosecution side (to which I was randomly assigned) but will share the main underpinning of our argument, and the one that I think is especially applicable to this discussion: chain of command, or, command responsibility.

The difficulty in proving guilt was the fact that all of these senior officials (obviously) did not carry out the torture themselves. And they often denied knowing the extent of abuses committed on detainees, just as James Murdoch and papa Murdoch have said they had no knowledge that Brooks and Les Hinton (former News Corp officials who have resigned) knew of the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World. While admitting he had “perhaps lost sight” of what was happening, Murdoch has made it clear that the News of the World accounted for less than 1% of News Corp, and thus his involvement in day-to-day operations were limited.

So, how does one justify “charging” and “convicting” officials like Cheney and Rumsfeld for torture when they came nowhere near the victims? And what lessons can we apply to the Murdoch fiasco? First, a brief history on command responsibility.

The idea of command responsibility was incorporated into the Army field manual as early as the Civil War. Article 71 of General Orders No. 100, which became known as the Lieber Code, regulated accountability by imposing criminal responsibility on commanders for ordering or encouraging soldiers to wound or kill already disabled enemies. Command responsibility was cemented by the United States Supreme Court in the case of WWII commander Tomoyuki Yamashita. General Yamashita was a general of the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII. He was prosecuted in an American military tribunal for war crimes relating to the Manila Massacre and other atrocities in the Phillippines and was charged with “unlawfully disregarding and failing to discharge his duty as a commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes.” The Yamashita defense acknowledged that atrocities had been committed but contended that the breakdown of communications and the Japanese chain of command was such that Yamashita could not have controlled his troops even if he had known of their actions. He was sentenced to death. The Yamashita case was subsequently appealed to the United States Supreme Court by way of an application for habeas corpus. The Supreme Court ruled against Yamashita. The majority court decision stated, “It is evident from the conduct of military operations by troops whose excesses are unrestrained by the orders of their commander would almost certainly result in violations which it is the purpose of the law of war to prevent. Its purpose to protect civilian populations and prisoners of war from brutality would largely be defeated if the commander of an invading army could with impunity neglect to take reasonable measures for their protection. Hence, the law of war presupposes that its violation is to be avoided through the control of the operations of war by commanders who are to some extent responsible for their subordinates.” The Geneva Conventions itself has codified the idea of command responsibility in its 1977 additional Protocol. Article 86(2) of the Additional Protocol to the 1977 Geneva Conventions states that: “the fact that a breach of the Conventions or of this Protocol was committed by a subordinate does not absolve his superiors from …responsibility … if they knew, or had information which should have enabled them to conclude in the circumstances at the time, that he was committing or about to commit such a breach and if they did not take all feasible measures within their power to prevent or repress the breach.”

All that being said, it is clear that the international community has long acknowledged the idea of command responsibility when it comes to military actions. So why don’t we always hold our public figures, government and corporate leadership as accountable? When you run a company, you are ultimately responsible for the actions of that company, just as a military leader is ultimately responsible for the actions of his or her brigade. Now, I’m not trying to make the sweeping assumption that military rules are applicable everywhere. And I don’t know enough about News Corp or the details in this case, so I’m not implying that I think the Murdochs should receive any particular punishment. But, I do think that in general, leaders – government, corporate or otherwise – always must face a certain level of responsibility for those below them. In Murdoch’s case, the “I didn’t know” and “I deny responsibility” excuse should not fly – with the people of Britain or with Parliament. You must ask, “Shouldn’t so much wealth and power come with some responsibility and accountability?”


The Bin Laden announcement

May 2, 2011

Tonight, I watched the news “break” as speculation grew that President Obama would announce the confirmed death of Osama Bin Laden. In the last hour when the country has waited with bated breath for the announcement, I have made some observations. Here are a few of them:

Where does the news break these days?

Events like this are true evidence of the way news and breaking events are shifting. In the past, the radio or television news channel would be the place to hear these events first. More recently, a news homepage like CNN would be the provider. Now, we turn to social media. How did I find out? A speculative comment by a friend on Facebook spurred my interest, and so I went to CNN to find out more. With nothing more than a frustrating “breaking news” banner, I turned to Twitter for more information. It was there I found local news sites that I follow discussing the issue. I watched as my Twitter and Facebook feed filled with the breaking news. It seemed that every Facebook friend thought they were the champions of the breaking news. And in this day and age, they very well could be. The constant stream of real-time information gives us all the power to “break the news” to our networks. But, in the end, I turned on CNN to watch the story unfold. So while our news may break in a different platform than before, we often turn back to the “traditional” places we see as legitimate and trust for the detailed information, as I did with CNN.

Crafting the narrative around the announcement 

In the time we have all spent waiting for the announcement, the media have been carefully crafting a narrative around this announcement. Wolf Blitzer keeps saying “we will all remember where we were when we heard that Osama was dead.” It seems to be the job of the news media to make this announcement an event, a spectacle. Within minutes of the announcement, they began interviews with NYFD members. With patriotic images of crowds gathering outside of the White House gates, these correspondents twiddle their thumbs, repeating the news by the minute and attempt to make the event “larger than life” while we wait.

Politicizing the announcement

Now that the announcement is over, we just wait for the pundits to come crawling out of the woodwork and begin tearing the announcement apart – not necessarily in a negative way. The announcement will shortly become politicized, a chance for the Ds and Rs to twist and manipulate the words, perhaps to be used as some collateral in next year’s election. His use of “God”, his use of the pledge of allegiance, his use of words, etc….they might possibly become chess pieces in the game. The media spoke to the hours of preparation spent on this announcement…hours spent carefully crafting this message to the American people, a message more than just announcing Osama’s death. Simply announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden is not possible…this has to lay the groundwork for a political maneuver if you will. Call this cynical? Ok, but anyone who watches the cutthroat world of political strategy would agree.

So, sit back, relax, and watch the politicizing game begin. But, let me leave you with some words from the announcement that resonated with me, and that I found particularly inspiring:

“We can do these things not because of wealth and power, but because of who we are.”

The blame game

January 14, 2011

When tragedy strikes, the blame game begins. After the tragic shooting in Arizona that killed six and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the left, right and in-between have been none to slow to take the opportunity to turn tragedy into a circus act of rhetoric regarding who is to blame. 

Sarah Palin, along with other right wing conservatives, was one victim of blame, with critics citing a Facebook posting by Palin last March regarding Democratic-controlled congressional districts, including that of Giffords.According to a CNN article, Palin also tweeted at the time: “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” Firing back against accusations, Palin used a politically charged term, “blood libel,” to condemn those using the tragedy as an opportunity to stir controversy, which only sparked more anger. Those on the right took the opportunity to defend themselves, blaming democratic rhetoric for a climate cultivating revolt. Because of the blame game, this tragedy has turned into exactly what it should not be: a spectacle.

America’s obsession with blame is further seen in the fascination with suspected shooter Jared Loughner. Various articles detail every piece of trivial information about Loughner’s life in order to quench America’s curiosity. These articles, two of which are titled “Laughner ‘creeped out’ classmates” and “What if he were your kid?” only fuel this bizarre fascination.

I really can’t make my point better than David Gergen, a CNN political analyst who wrote a fabulous article titled “No time for  finger-pointing.” You can read it here. Gergen says that “Until we have more definitive information about the shooter, pointing fingers at who might bear responsibility for the Tucson, Arizona, massacre only contributes to what we must end in America: a toxic political environment.” This toxic political environment stands upon the foundation of the blame game, and in the midst of tragedy, we must focus not on the rhetoric of this game, but on memorializing the victims and looking forward to brighter days of tolerance.

The importance of language

December 4, 2010

After pursuing a double major, managing a student-run public relations firm, writing a 100+ page honors thesis and, finally, graduating, I needed a break. While friends and peers jumped into the daily grind of work, I decided to do something I had never done before. I decided to travel. After working and saving for the summer, I spent two and a half months this past fall traveling through fourteen different countries (and 25 cities). I took my blog in a different direction from the usual discussion on communication in politics, using it primarily to communicate with family and friends and share my experiences traveling throughout Western Europe. As I return to blogging about communication and politics, I feel it is important to shed light on how my travels influenced and shaped my own views on communication and public relations.  

As I explored various cultures and communities, I realized that my experiences could be extrapolated into the realm of communications and even public relations. Take, for instance, language. In every country we visited, we made the effort to at least learn “I don’t speak [such and such], do you speak English?” and yes, no, please and thank you. While we butchered some (Hungarian, Czech etc) and mastered others (Italian, German), everyone with whom we spoke was kind, and gladly switched to English after our attempts. As I watched tourist after tourist (mostly Americans) meet blank stares as they rudely assumed that locals spoke English, I realized how simple, and yet important, making an effort to speak a local language can be. The same is true of public relations.

When strategically communicating with target publics, one of the biggest mistakes made by public relations professionals is the failure to speak in the language of their audience. The slight nuances of communication that can only be obtained through shared language are the key ingredients in fostering trust. Learning the language of your audience is not quite as easy as looking up words in a phrase dictionary, which I had the luxury of doing. It requires extensive research and time. And, to make things more tricky, just as dialects emerge and evolve as populations change, the language of your audience will change and evolve as various trends or demographics shift as well. Keeping a finger on the pulse of the language of your audience is key in continuing to build your relationship and will ultimately help you meet your ultimate objectives.

Parodying BP on Twitter

May 25, 2010

Recently, some humorous Twitterers took it upon themselves to create a fake Twitter account parodying BP and its response to the oil spill. While Twitter requires you to state whether or not you are truly representing the company, BPGlobalPR’s bio state “This page exists to get BP’s message and mission statement out into the twitterverse!” While the account went live just a couple of days ago, there are currently 14,675 followers. Some of my favorite parody tweets are:

  • “Oh man, this whole time we’ve been trying to stop SEAWATER from gushing into our OIL. Stupid Terry was holding the diagram upside down.”
  • “Proud to announce that BP will be sponsoring the New Orleans Blues Festival this summer w/ special tribute to Muddy Waters.”
  • “The good news: Mermaids are real. The bad news: They are now extinct.”
  • “Negative people view the ocean as half empty of oil. We are dedicated to making it half full. Stay positive America!”
  • “If we had a dollar for every complaint about this oil spill, it wouldn’t compare to our current fortune. Oil is a lucrative industry!”
  • “Doing our best to turn oil into oilinade. So far the stuff tastes TERRIBLE.”
  • “Catastrophe is a strong word, let’s all agree to call it a whoopsie daisy.”
  • “Thousands of people are attacked by sea creatures every year. We at BP are dedicated to bringing that number down.” You’re welcome!”
  • “Think about it this way, the ocean is like rootbeer and oil is like ice cream. We just made America a giant rootbeer float!”

So from a public relations standpoint, what should BP do? Ignore it? Respond to it? Condemn it? Harness it for the positive? Certainly attempting to disable the account will create a backlash. Ignoring it could paint BP in a negative light as well. I agree with John Taylor, who thinks that BP should beef up its current Twitter site. If this parody Twitter account can harness this much attention and engage with this many followers, BP should be able to use this to its advantage. Obviously those on Twitter are interested in the spill – hence the 14,675 followers, so BP needs to harness the work BPGlobalPR has done to continue communicating effectively in this crisis situation.

Is Google bombing unethical?

May 6, 2010

Recently, in my strategic social media class, we discussed the “Amazon Fail” crisis of April, 2009. For those who don’t know, last spring Amazon began classifying books with homosexual themes as “adult,” which erased their status on rank lists. The public outrage manifested through Twitter, aggregated by the hashtag #amazonfail. Those leading the movement to boycott Amazon encouraged “Google bombing.” According to Wikipedia, the terms “Google bomb” or “Googlewashing” refer to “practices intended to influence the ranking of particular pages in results returned by the Google search engine in order to increase the likelihood of people finding and clicking on selections in which the individual or other entity engaging in this practice is interested.” In this case, angry authors and their supporters wanted the website “smartbitchestrashybooks” to be the first listing found when searching “Amazon” on Google.

In the middle of this discussion, some fellow classmates tweeted that Google bombing is never ethical. This struck me as odd, as I found nothing unethical about the disgruntled Amazonfail movement Google bombing Amazon. I think that this situation illuminates a gray area. In some cases, Google bombing is certainly unethical. I believe that if it is a strategic, public relations-driven initiative to drive traffic away or to an organization or mislead the public, then that is unethical. It is unethical because it is taking advantage of and abusing influential channels like Google in a dishonest and shady way. It erodes transparent and honest public relations.

However, in the case of Amazon, it was an authentic groundswell of discontent expressing frustration through digital channels. I find nothing unethical about this. In fact, I find this case to be rather democratic. Transparent and authentic Grassroots strategies and tactics to express discontent online are no more unethical than those that exist in the offline world.

Thoughts? Do you think it is unethical? Always? Sometimes? Never?

Can angry rhetoric lead to violence?

May 1, 2010

With tensions simmering in Washington, lawmakers facing threats and a Facebook page “praying” for the death of President Obama, political commentators have renewed an old debate: Is there a correlation between violent rhetoric of the news media and real life violence? CNN’s Howard Kurtz looks at this question from varying perspectives.

Is it, as one interviewee says, merely the fact that more passionate rhetoric always comes from the opposition, in this case, those opposed to the Democrats, who are in power? Do media power brokers like Rush Limbaugh encourage violence?

Just two days ago, a Facebook group “praying” for the death of President Obama reached one million fans. The page brands itself by saying, “DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.” Facebook has come under fire from opponents who believe the page should be taken down. This raises dangerous questions of free speech and censorship, questions Facebook has eloquently tried to maneuver.

But what does this say for our favorite pundits? Our Rush Limbaughs and Rachel Maddows and Keith Olbermanns? Can their commentary really be linked to violence? It is doubtful that causation could ever be established. On the other hand, it would always be easy for a crazy person to attribute an act of violence to a media leader. In both the media – traditional media and new media channels like Facebook – it is best to choose words carefully, never encourage violence and tread lightly on the freedoms – and barriers – imposed by freedom of speech.

Do YOU think fired up commentators could inspire violence?