11 Jul 2011

Phone-hack focus turns on Murdoch adviser Hinton

Currently Dow Jones CEO, Les Hinton has worked with Rupert Murdoch for more than 50 years. But attention is now focused on his time between 1995 and 2007, when he was in charge of News International.

Les Hinton, Dow Jones CEO and formerly in charge of News International (Reuters)

Scandals often grow from small beginnings. Watergate, the daddy of all political imbroglios, began with the arrest of five men for breaking into the Democratic HQ in Washington in June 1972 and ended with the impeachment of the most powerful man in the world.

The origin of the News of the World phone-hacking saga is even more innocuous. In 2005 the newspaper published a story about Prince William, based on information known only to a small number of people. The suggestion was that the information had been obtained illegally.

By last week, the five-and-a-half-year drama had engulfed the News of the World, the British Prime Minister’s former communications director, and ensnared an estimated 4,000 phone-hack victims.

Friday saw the spotlight trained on Rebekah Brooks, News of the World editor between 2000 and 2003 and, since 2009, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International stable of newspapers. Her survival appeared to have been guaranteed at the weekend, at least temporarily, by Rupert Murdoch’s personal endorsement.

Murdoch’s ‘consigliere’

By Monday, however, another News Corporation grandee was under threat when it emerged that Les Hinton, Murdoch’s longest-standing adviser – often referred to, in a nod to The Godfather, as the Australian-born magnate’s “consigliere” – was one of five News International executives who had had access to an internal 2007 company report which found that phone hacking at NI was more widespread than previously admitted.

Hinton, at the time News International’s executive chairman, told the Commons Culture Select Committee in March of the same year he was “absolutely convinced” that the practice of phone hacking was limited to one reporter. That reporter was Clive Goodman, the former News of the World royal correspondent, then languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure after pleading guilty to illegally intercepting phone messages from Clarence House.

Hinton also offered his endorsement for Andy Coulson, who had resigned at the start of 2007 when Goodman was sent down. “I believe absolutely that Andy did not have knowledge of what was going on,” he announced.

Then, in 2009 Hinton testified before another select committee that NI had gone to “extraordinary lengths” to investigate phone hacking, stating: “There was never any evidence delivered to me that suggested that the conduct of Clive Goodman spread beyond him.”

Les Hinton, Andy Coulson, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Wade (Getty)

Left to right: Les Hinton, Andy Coulson, Rupert Murdoch, Rebecca Brooks (Getty)

‘Charming apparatchik’

That Les Hinton has now been drawn into the limelight must be particularly worrying for Rupert Murdoch and his ambitions for his News Corporation media empire. The British-born Hinton has worked several stints in the UK, most recently for 12 years between 1995 and 2007. But he has been an American citizen since 1985 (he was naturalised only months after Murdoch acquired US citizenship) and, as the current Dow Jones chief executive, he publishes the Wall Street Journal – arguably the jewel in Murdoch’s publishing crown

As such, the reportedly urbane 67-year-old is the lynchpin of News Corp’s newsprint operations in the US. He must ensure, among other things, that undertakings of journalistic freedom given at the time of the WSJ’s acquisition are adhered to (on the subject of editorial independence, readers may recall questions raised nearly 30 years ago when Murdoch – having recently acquired Times Newspapers – sacked Times editor Harold Evans).

Michael Wolff, author of The Man Who Owns the News, a biography of Rupert Murdoch, described Hinton to Channel 4 News as “a quite charming apparatachik in the Murdoch organisation: intelligent, witty, and a reasonable person. He’s not a rabid Murdoch-ite – although he is, of course, a loyal one.” In 2009 Hinton married Kath Raymond, a one-time adviser to the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

That reasonableness may be tested to the limit in the coming weeks and months. If the embattled Rebekah Brooks loses her position at News International, the focus will undoubtedly turn with greater acuity on the publicity-shy Hinton (the US Adweek website quotes a former Dow Jones executive as saying of him: “He does not want to be profiled. He does not want to give speeches.”)

And if that happens, his own position within the News Corporation could be placed under strain. The phone-hacking scandal has subjected the Murdoch empire to its greatest-ever crisis, and there is little doubt it will see more casualties in the weeks and months to come – Rebekah Brooks suggested as much when she addressed News of the World staffers at the end of last week. Whether it eventually engulfs Murdoch’s most trusted ally lies, in the view of some, in the hands of Murdoch himself.