Who was going to stop Roger Ailes?

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive O...

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, News Corporation, USA and Co-Chair, Annual Meeting 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In any organisation, the question is never “how did sexual harassment occur”, it is “who is going to stop it?” The organisation will not stop it unless someone stops him. The organisation as organisation will simply continue to function as necessary to deliver profits and serve its customers. The organisation, like any tool, will only do as it is told. As an organisation lacks agency, sexual harassment and bullying can become part of the culture since it is the organisation’s agents which act. The company will have policies, procedures, guidance, and training yet none of this will matter if individuals will not act on them. As we now know, Roger Ailes settled sexual harassment lawsuits without changing his behaviour. He was in a position where he could not be challenged on his behaviour for no junior employee could challenge him and no one senior to him cared to stop him. The company did not require him to change his behaviour, it did not discipline or dismiss him. The company saw the lawsuits as the cost of doing business and as we know, Roger Ailes was making the company a lot of money.

The organisation protects the powerful for it reflects their interests.

Senior executives, like celebrities, have an institutional armour as their status protects them. In most, but not all, sexual harassment cases, it is a senior employee harassing a junior employee. The sexual harassment reflects a disparity in organisational power. When a senior officer harasses a junior officer for sexual favours or treats them with disrespect, it is bullying by other means. The institutionally stronger employee, demands, and sometimes receives, favours from the organizationally weaker employee. The strong rule the weak in such a relationship. At Fox News, like most companies has policies, procedures, and training create a procedural equality. These documents create the appearance of a culture that complies with the law against sexual harassment. In this case, though, the organisation failed in its duty. Any equality was a sham, the company aided and abetted a senior officer’s abusive behaviour. Moreover, the company has only removed Ailes, it has not changed its culture.

Women, Fox News only cared who made more money.

The culture is set by the top and at the top we find Rupert Murdoch. He could have stopped Ailes sooner, but he didn’t. Those that he appointed to replace Ailes could have stopped him, but they didn’t. Why should they when Ailes was making so much money for them? Ailes was not liked because of who he was, his intrinsic worth, but because of what he delivered for the company. As long as he was useful to Fox News and Rupert Murdoch he would be tolerated and protected. Such a relationship tells us about the corporate culture, “it is how we do things around here”, since it shows the staff what is important and what will be tolerated. If you make the company money, or you are a senior officer, you can transgress the policies and procedures that others have to follow. For the women of Fox News, the message is that the culture disrespects them. Murdoch only acted against Ailes when it suited him, not when it when it mattered to the women.

In Murdoch’s organisations money and loyalty appear to be are all that matter. The policies and social responsibility statements provide the appearance of procedural equality. Yet, as long as Ailes was making money, Murdoch and the company had no interested in his behaviour. More to the point, who was going to complain to Murdoch about Ailes? Would Murdoch listen to such complaints if an employee had the temerity to approach him? Would he pass this off to HR who would then in turn do what they did previously – nothing. The brutal message to any female employee is clear. Money matters more than principles and as long as we make money you can and will be harassed and bullied.

The fish rots from the head down

We know that organisations go toxic when their leadership are toxic. An organisation will take its cues from its leadership. Staff are encouraged to conform to the organisational culture which creates an organisational silence in such matters. Ailes set the corporate culture and employees followed or looked the other way. Even now Murdoch and the other senior managers want to avoid their moral responsibility for what Ailes has done. They and the senior managers point to Ailes’ secrecy and independence to explain how he was able to get away with it. Others have pointed to a culture of fear where Ailes did not entertain questions and people did not ask them. Even if these claims are true it does not avoid their moral responsibility. If anything, it makes the situation worse. A leader can only create a culture of fear or secrecy if others, both above him and below him, enable that behaviour. The board and senior managers, those paid to push back and challenge, did not hold him to account. Murdoch was either complicit in the behaviour or, once again, asleep and in the dark. One wonders if he knows if anything is going wrong in his companies. The other senior officers carried out his orders, *even though* they know it created a culture of harassment which was ethically and morally wrong. At no point did senior managers push back or seek to restrain him. It is these same managers that Murdoch has promoted to replace Ailes. As long as Ailes delivered the results they wanted, they turned their face. They chose wilful ignorance. Fox News has an ethical structure where this behaviour was accepted and endorsed.

Murdoch companies suffer ethical lapse that reflect his ethical blindness.

Ailes behaviour is not out of the ordinary in Murdoch media companies. We know from other Murdoch organisations that such abuse and bullying was tolerated. At the now defunct News of the World (NOTW), the then editor Andy Coulson was described as a bully by an employment tribunal.[1] He was not disciplined or dismissed even though the paper had to pay out almost 1.5 million dollars for a tribunal claim. The tribunal’s finding of fact was that he engaged in bullying. The tribunal also found the management team contributed to and aided the bullying of an employee suffering mental health issues.[2] None of the managers defended the employee from his bullying. They failed in their ethical and moral duties. They surrender their ethical responsibility. Not a single manager showed the moral courage to push back and resist the bullying.

Murdoch companies and employees show a disturbing pattern.

The NOTW’s corporate culture was toxic. We know that bullying was rife within the organisation, which was ignored because the editor and the paper were making money. We know the editor and the corporate legal affairs manager put people under surveillance.[3] The legal manager admitted that he had ordered surveillance of opposing lawyers. The editors often attacked critics and those people who displeased either Murdoch or one of his friends. The UK’s Leveson Inquiry revealed that the tabloid culture was toxic. Tabloids, in particular the Murdoch press, would “monster” someone.[4] Monstering is where a paper publishes a series of articles attacking a person, their character, job, or family. They are targeted because the paper, the editor, or the proprietor want to harm them. They are chosen either to send a political message or because they are a critics or enemy. It is a method to control the public domain for it demonstrate the paper’s political power. The method also deters those who might think of crossing the paper and its chosen allies.

Ailes ran his company in nearly the same way The News of the World was run.

Roger Ailes is alleged to have run Fox News with a similar approach. Ailes had political operatives and private detectives to attack his critics.[5] He used the company to further his interests. His interests were the company’s interests. Ailes appears to have behaved at Fox News just as NOTW behaved. From what has been reported, Ailes and the News of the World, enjoyed being a bully and punishing those they did not like.[6] The institutional and organisational bullying is accepted behaviour. The employees accept and promote it by their tacit or open support for the organisation and its culture. The employees are the culture by their ability to enable through a failure to act. If anything, the Ailes case demonstrates the moral cowardice that exists within Fox News and its employees. A fish rots from the head down and the inside out.

Was Ailes pushed by internal politics than a desire to do the right thing?

In any organisation, there has to be a way to stop such behaviour. Some rely on whistle blowers. Other companies have a clear zero tolerance policy. Many have mandatory training and awareness programmes. These programmes are enforced with regular monitoring to protect staff from predatory behaviour. Fox News dealt with it by an internal investigation. The investigation was to deal with a potential lawsuit. Even though the company, in its reputation management mode, was quick to point out that it investigates all sexual harassment claims, they have not explained how Ailes was able to settle sexual harassment lawsuits without oversight. Moreover, they have not explained why he was not disciplined or dismissed. Instead Ailes was able to resign, with a large payment, without a public apology or admission. Despite the seriousness of the accusation, it is likely his departure has more to do with the internal politics, as Murdoch and sons found an opportunity to remove him, than from an organisational desire to do the right thing.[7] What is clear is the culture has not changed. The senior managers who were complicit in such behaviour remain at the organisation. So, what was the point of the change?

To stop Ailes and his culture requires moral courage.

Despite the special characteristics that make this a Fox News scandal, the fundamental issue is the same for all organisations. “Who will stop such behaviour when it comes from the top?” Is there anyone in Fox News or any organisation with the necessary moral courage to confront such behaviour and change it? From what we have seen for the past 30 years at Fox News, the answer is no. At other companies, the answer is different. At Fox News one has to ask, “How do the employees live with the knowledge they work in, enable, and represent such a culture?”

[1] Andy Coulson, was named in a tribunal case in which the News of the World had to pay out nearly £800000.  “[A] tribunal ordered the News of the World to pay Driscoll, 41, £792,736 in compensation for being the victim of “a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/the-reporter-who-took-on-the-news-of-the-world-and-won-1830378.html   see also http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/mar/13/andy-coulson-bullying-boss-news-world-clive-goodman  If readers are interested, Mr. Coulson denies he is a bully. He claimed the Tribunal was unfair in its judgement. His witness statement can be read here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Witness-Statement-of-Andy-Coulson.pdf  The Tribunal judgement can be read here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Exhibit-1-to-M-Driscoll.pdf   The salient paragraphs are paragraphs 106 and 116 and 130 and 141

[2] For an insight into the News of the World culture, the Tribunal provides reference to the way the company responded to the claimant’s mental illness.  On this issue see paragraphs 198.1-198.4. Suffice to say the Tribunal did not find they were either sympathetic or understanding. In particular, even after the claimant’s claims were proven true which was the basis for the second disciplinary warning, they refused to accept it. (198.2)


[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/02/news-of-the-world-legal-chief-ordered-surveillance-on-rival-lawyers

[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/media/murdochs-scandal/what-its-like-to-get-monstered-by-a-murdoch-tabloid/

[5] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/08/ailes-used-fox-budget-to-finance-campaigns-against-enemies.html

[6]  http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2012/03/5557167/monstering-when-murdoch-tabloid-publishes-pictures-you-your-underwear-

[7] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-roger-ailes-built-the-fox-news-fear-factory-20110525

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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