Lessons in history for Rebekah Brooks

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Sir Thomas Dugdale, an unremarkable Conservative member of parliament, reached the pinnacle of his career as minister of agriculture in Winston Churchill’s last government. He resigned in 1954 when an inquiry revealed persistent maladministration by his department in the disposal of land at Crichel Down. The inquiry concluded that he personally knew nothing of the affair, although government papers published 30 years later suggested his hands were less clean, and his civil servants less culpable, than appeared at the time.

The Crichel Down affair was a classic affirmation of the principle of ministerial accountability: ministers are responsible for what happens in their department regardless of whether they authorised it. Sir Thomas acknowledged this doctrine in his resignation speech, saying: “I, as minister, must accept full responsibility for any mistakes and inefficiencies of officials in my department just as, when my officials bring off successes on my behalf, I take full credit for them.”

Arnold Weinstock, for many years chief executive of Britain’s General Electric Company, gave an eloquent exposition of the nature of personal responsibility in business in a letter sent to managers of English Electric when GEC acquired that company in 1968. English Electric was mired in bureaucracy that Weinstock was determined to stamp out.

The extensive use of meetings, the compilation of long lists of people copied into every communication, creates an environment in which there is no personal commitment to any course of action, and everyone feels relieved of obligation to acquire the knowledge to judge effectively. Weinstock’s missive announced the abolition of all internal committees. Managers would be given personal responsibilities for tasks. They would be permitted, even encouraged, to delegate these tasks and to involve colleagues in their decisions: but these actions would never reduce or remove their personal responsibility.

Good organisations maintain this approach. Apple’s successes and failures are closely associated with the company’s founder. But Steve Jobs cannot do it all himself. His managerial style emphasises the role of the “directly responsible individual” – someone accountable for each new activity and project.

Such a culture is sustainable only in an organisation that allows individuals to make mistakes and encourages them to recognise them. We all know hopeless organisations in which attention is devoted, not to making things go right, but to attaching oneself to projects that are going well and distancing oneself from those that are not. Apple has got many things wrong but succeeds because a few of its many initiatives have been transforming innovations.

It is hard to determine when the principle of ministerial accountability died. But by the time Stephen Byers could slip from one cabinet post to another without taking responsibility for any of the blunders that seemed to happen wherever he was in charge, ministerial accountability had been replaced by T.S. Eliot’s cat: “When a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there.”

Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and former editor of the News of the World, is criticised on the grounds that even if she did not know of that paper’s intrusion into personal lives, she should have known. The point is well taken, but not central. If one shop assistant is rude, the store manager’s defence is not that he himself is unfailingly polite, but that mistakes and mishaps happen even in the best of organisations. If assistants are repeatedly rude, that is a systemic problem, and the manager of the store and ultimately the chief executive of the company are properly held to account.

These managers may be charming people, and company policy may well insist that employees be polite at all times. But this is irrelevant to responsibility and accountability. Good management means appointing good people, delegating to them, and creating an environment in which they can give their best. This is almost all that good management is about. Failure in that is a failure of management, not of subordination.

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