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Sunday, 23 January 2011

Andy Coulson's lesson in Leadership responsibility

I once worked for a massive management consultancy firm. A leader in its field, the company was littered with broken marriages. The travelling was never-ending; you could find yourself being sent away for two weeks with an afternoon's notice. One day, they announced at a staff conference that were adding a 'slice' to their 'culture wheel' (looked like a cake, listed words like 'quality', 'knowledge' and 'sharing' on each slice). This new slice was to be called 'caring' and it meant that work-life balance was going to be properly taken account of. It all looked good.

About a month later, my uncle died, leaving behind two young sons whom I was very close to. Working in Paris at the time, I asked whether I could exchange projects with a London-based girl colleague with exactly the same skills and a boyfriend living in Paris. The answer was 'No'. I pushed a bit and found out something interesting...the 'caring' bit of the culture wheel was so that the partners of the firm could say that they were 'caring' nothing more. Off-the-record, they were happy to have a culture in which people felt like numbers and gave their life to the company. I was never allowed to speak to a partner about this issue, instead I talked to my team leader, his project manager, his manager and his senior manager, and the answer was the same.

When I left the company eventually, having been headhunted, I talked to the senior partner about this experience. He professed himself to be baffled by it. Even though he was 'my' senior partner, ultimately responsible for me, he was never consulted over this issue. The managers beneath him just made the decision they thought he would have wanted, given his previous decisions and the way he wanted people to be managed. "Had I known" he said, "of course you could have come back to London." I'll never know the truth.

I think we'll also never know the truth about Andy Coulson's role in the News of the World 'phone-tapping' scandal. What we do know is that it happened, and more and more people are suing the paper. Coulson claims that he had no idea about it, and although an ex-NOTW journalist has claimed that Coulson personally asked him to use phone tapping, the fact is that there is no evidence that Coulson asked anyone, nor knew anything about it. Speaking in front of the Cross-party House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee in 2009, Mr Coulson said he had given his reporters the freedom to do their job, but "my instructions to the staff were clear - we did not use subterfuge of any kind unless there was a clear public interest in doing so."

But the fact is that he presided over a journalistic culture where his staff didn't care about public interest, they went on fishing expeditions in the hope of finding the story they wanted. This is different, and it involved hacking into the mobile phone messages of allegedly thousands of celebrities, sports stars and politicians. Coulson recognised this when he resigned in January 2007 from his position as editor of the News of the World.

Now, he has had to leave his position as Communications Chief to the Coalition government. By all accounts, including that of someone as partizan as Alastair Campbell, he was doing a very good job. But, like Campbell in the aftermath of the Iraq War, he was becoming the story instead of trying to control stories. Rightly, he recognised that "when the spokesperson needs a spokesperson" it is time to go.

Is this fair? Should he be punished twice for the same 'crime'? David Cameron thought no, and the truth is he and Coulson could well have toughed this out. It seemed that there was no smoking gun that would have directly linked Coulson to the phone tapping. Or was there?

Leaders get paid a lot of money. Part of that is to be responsible for whatever happens on your 'watch'. The actions of your team become your responsibility. Royal reporter Clive Goodman is in jail right now for authorising the phone tapping of members of the Royal Households' phones. Was that an idea he came up with, or did Coulson create the kind of pressurized culture and atmosphere where journalists thought that was the kind of thing they were expected to do.

Did the Senior managers at my old management consultancy firm just not care about the fact they could make my colleague's life so much happier and allow me to support my cousins? Or were they under pressure to make those kinds of decisions because of the even unspoken attitudes of the senior partners to the employees of the firm, who were purely there to make them money and should never be given the impression of having any influence? It is that question that helps me to understand why even if there is no evidence Coulson asked anyone to phone tap, it is still the case that he presided over a culture where it was done systematically.

Enemies of News International (owners of News of the World) and the Conservative party were never going to give up linking him to this. Communications Chiefs should be unseen and unheard. When they are neither, they should probably go. Sad, but true.

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