NEW YORK (Reuters) - Les Hinton, Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenant for more than half a century, was the man who would take one for the team if he had to.
On Friday, that is just what he did.
The phone hacking scandal that killed News Corp’s News of the World tabloid claimed a second senior executive at one of the world’s most powerful media companies with Hinton’s announcement that he would step down as chief executive of Murdoch’s Dow Jones & Co.
“That I was ignorant of what apparently happened is irrelevant and in the circumstances I feel it is proper for me to resign from News Corp, and apologize to those hurt by the actions of the News of the World,” Hinton, who was in charge of Murdoch’s UK newspapers for much of the time when the hacking was taking place, wrote in his resignation letter.
Hinton, 67, was one of Murdoch’s most constant and trusted employees. His resignation, coming on the same day as that of his successor at the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, paints a portrait of the consummate News Corp loyalist.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Hinton was the fall guy. He would take one for the team,” Peter Burden, author of a 2008 book about the News of the World, told Reuters in an interview conducted several days before Hinton’s resignation.
His loyalty was in evidence when he appeared before a British parliamentary committee in 2007.
Asked if the News of the World “carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry” into the use of illegal phone hacking by the newspaper and if he was “absolutely convinced” it was limited to one reporter, Hinton did not hesitate.
“Yes, we have,” Hinton said.
Hinton worked under Murdoch for more than five decades, rising through the ranks until he was tapped to run UK-based News International in 1995. He became chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal after News Corp bought the company in 2007.
Much of the public anger over the hacking scandal has focused on Brooks, editor of News of the World between 2000 and 2003, and her successor Andy Coulson. Hinton headed News International when Brooks and Coulson ran the newspaper.
“He was definitely around when it was going on,” said Burden. “And for him to be seen to be mixed up in that whole tacky situation would be very, very damaging indeed.”
Hinton spent his entire career working for Murdoch, starting as a reporter at the Adelaide News. Legend has it that he used to collect Murdoch’s sandwiches.
Tall, trim and debonair, with rimless glasses and waves of silver hair, Hinton has a reputation for being level-headed and insightful, and he had won praise for balancing some of the stormier personalities within News Corp, including Murdoch.
“He’s a very nice guy -- congenial, easygoing and smart,” said one source who knows both men.
Hinton lives in an elegant townhouse -- fitted out with a Jacuzzi and a deck -- on Manhattan’s upper east side with his wife Kath, who worked as an aide to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Insiders have described Hinton as one of the newspaper baron’s consiglieri, trusted to sort through sticky business issues or smooth political flaps.
Hinton was instrumental in saving the Wall Street Journal’s online pay model after his boss toyed with making the wsj.com website free, according to a source familiar with the matter.
“I think Les was very helpful in persuading Rupert not to take down the subscription wall,” the source said before Hinton’s resignation. “And now of course, Rupert will put a wall around anything.”
Still, the source said he was not as close to the mogul as Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thomson. “My sense is that they are not personally close in the way that Robert and Rupert are close,” said the source. “But he has Rupert’s respect.”
A former Dow Jones employee said that Murdoch trusted Hinton as much as Thomson or Brooks, it was just that the relationship was less public.
“Les believes the lower the profile you have, the longer you survive in News Corp,” said the former employee, who was speaking before Friday’s announcement.
After his assurances to the parliamentary committee in 2007, Hinton answered further questions in September 2009.
Speaking over a video link from New York, he again sought to convince the members of parliament that all was now right at the News of the World.
“There was never any evidence delivered to me that suggested that the conduct of (the single reporter) Clive Goodman spread beyond him ... We went, I promise you, to extraordinary lengths within the News of the World,” he said.
There were times during the hearing when his certainty appeared to crack -- he used the phrases “I do not recall” or “I do not know” or variations on them at least 55 times.
Hinton was asked whether he should have pushed his editors on “the extent of the inquiry and more details about what had actually been looked into.”
He replied that he “was happy when I gave evidence to you all two and a half years ago that the answers I gave were sincere and that the efforts made to discover any other wrongdoing had been conscientious and thorough, and I think people worked very hard in very difficult circumstances to both investigate what might have happened and to make sure that it did not happen again”.
Rupert’s son James Murdoch, who now oversees News International, conceded last week that statements had been made to parliament before all the facts of the case were known. “That was wrong,” he said, without placing blame on anyone.
Reuters is a competitor of Dow Jones Newswires, the financial news agency that News Corp acquired along with the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
Additional reporting by Robert MacMillan, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Paul Hoskins in London; Editing by Ted Kerr