article

07.11.11

Rupert's Fall Guy?

Les Hinton gets high marks as a quiet but crucial top lieutenant in the Murdoch empire. But insiders tell Howard Kurtz that he could be "toast" as the News of the World scandal spreads.

Even regular newspaper readers could be forgiven for knowing little about Les Hinton, the chief executive of Dow Jones & Co.

“He hates exposure,” says a former company executive. “He does not like the media. He’s a very low-profile guy who wasn’t interested in self-promotion. He knew that would be the kiss of death with Rupert.”

Hinton’s profile is about to get a lot higher over his role in the scandal that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. As a Murdoch staffer for more than half a century, Hinton spent a dozen years running News International, the British unit of Murdoch’s global company, including while the phone hacking was taking place at News of the World. And it was Hinton who told a parliamentary committee in 2007 that he was “absolutely convinced” that the illegal accessing of phones was limited to a single rogue reporter.

After having conducted a “full, rigorous, internal inquiry,” Hinton said, “I believe he was the only person.”

That assertion now seems laughable in light of the arrest of the tabloid’s former editor, Andy Coulson, and growing evidence of misconduct and malfeasance that led to the demise of the 168-year-old News of the World. Once British investigators start examining Hinton’s role, the scandal is likely to touch Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, perhaps the most prestigious of Murdoch’s stable of newspapers.

The contrast between the august Journal, America’s premiere financial newspaper, and the low-road News of the World, where a reporter posed as a fake sheik to entrap public figures, could hardly be greater. Colleagues at Dow Jones speak highly of the British-born Hinton as someone who has the confidence of both Murdoch and Journal Editor Robert Thomson.

“The tragedy of this will be if it hurts him,” says a veteran Journal staffer who asked not to be identified. “He’s a good guy. He’s smart, ambitious for the company, extremely good at encouraging people who work for him to think more broadly about how to do their jobs. He sets a high bar for all of us. It’s a 180-degree change from the old Dow Jones.”

The former company executive says Murdoch was constantly calling Hinton or meeting with him during trips to New York. When Murdoch would propose unrealistic schemes, “he could talk Rupert off the ledge.”

But in light of the scandal, this person says, “I think Les is toast.”

Hinton, 67, who became an American citizen after Murdoch did, isn’t granting any interviews, and a Dow Jones spokeswoman declined comment.

Colleagues who admire Hinton say he erred on the side of ethics. In one case, Hinton played a role when The Wall Street Journal Europe walked away from sponsorship of a Dubai women's tennis tournament after the United Arab Emirates refused to issue a visa to an Israeli player. Rather than overlook the incident, the paper said in a statement that “The Wall Street Journal's editorial philosophy is free markets and free people, and this action runs counter to the Journal's editorial direction.”

'The tragedy of this will be if it hurts him,' says a veteran Journal staffer.

The silver-haired Hinton is widely described as a smooth operator. He has worked for Murdoch since he was fetching sandwiches for him as a 15-year-old office gofer at Australia’s Adelaide News. Hinton lives in a well-appointed townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his wife, Kath, who was an adviser to former prime minister Gordon Brown. He has thrown large parties for the staff but generally stays off the New York social circuit.

In a rare interview with the Telegraph in 2009, Hinton said he no longer felt like “the barbarian in the elevator” at the Journal, given his background in the Murdoch empire. “If you believed everything you read about the attitude towards us that was alleged to exist, you would have been expected to wear a damn flak-jacket when you came into the building,” he said.

The Watergate-style question is now what he knew about the phone hacking and when he knew it. The Guardian quoted one source as saying that Hinton was one of only five people in the Murdoch ranks who saw the company’s internal investigation report, which has never been made public. That alone virtually guarantees he will be at the center of renewed government inquiries to determine the scope of the phone hacking and whether News International covered it up.

The parliamentary committee questioned Hinton again in 2009, and he insisted “there was never any evidence delivered to me” that the misconduct had spread beyond reporter Clive Goodman, who was jailed in the scandal. “We went, I promise you, to extraordinary lengths within the News of the World,” he said. But as Reuters noted, Hinton used some version of “I do not recall” or “I do not know” at least 55 times.

With Murdoch determined to save Hinton’s successor, Rebekah Brooks—he made sure to be photographed with her after flying to London last weekend—there is talk that Hinton could take the fall for the botched investigation. And the knives are clearly out. Financial Times reported Monday that Hinton “is being blamed by people close to News Corp. for failing to get to grips with the News of the World phone hacking scandal,” and that he “could become the most senior casualty of the crisis, his friends fear.”