Email hygiene: News Corp’s double delete

Among the many unkind words directed at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in the UK, some of the most hurtful have centred on its policies for document deletion. What could be more natural for a hygiene-conscious media company than to seek to clean out its email records from time to time?

News Corp Australia has no equivalent of Data Pool 3 containing millions of emails, to get misplaced en route to Mumbai. Australian court files show it has a much more rigorous approach to turfing out old emails. The key seems to be getting on the case early.

Chief counsel Ian Philip set the bar in 2005 by describing how News Australia execs don’t keep electronic records of emails. They even use something called a fax machine.

Sumption: Now, as I understand it, your reason for writing the fax out in manuscript was to avoid creating an electronic record of the document?—Philip: Yes.

Q: After sending it, you destroyed both the document and a manuscript draft that you had previously written?—I did.

Q: And before you sent your fax to Mr Akhurst you telephoned him, didn’t you, and asked him to destroy it as soon as he read it?—I did ask him to destroy it, yes.

Seven’s English barrister Jonathon Sumption cross-examining Ian Philip, December 12 2005.

Admirably thorough. But here’s the thing. News Corp Australia is so good at keeping secrets and deleting old email records, does it affect the whole way they do business? How do you run a business without records–or maybe just without accountability? The Australian operation seems to have had minimal interference or even scrutiny from head office in New York since Lachlan Murdoch stepped down as Australian chief in 2000. But perhaps that’s a long bow.

A simple question: how many newspapers does Rupert Murdoch sell every day in Australia? It’s about 1.3 million. But for former News Corp Australia CEO Kim Williams, the question was a world of pain. As Adele Ferguson put it:

‘Kim went to circulation and said “I want to see how the papers are selling every morning.” He was told it couldn’t be done and he went ballistic. For six months he was screaming at the circulation guys and wouldn’t hear that it wasn’t the way the system works, unless you want to spend $30 million to change it,’ a source said.

So where are the electronic records? Stop thinking of document deletion as a cover-up: what does it do to your business?  What if the pristine hygiene that Philip describes is so rigorously applied that there is no centralized way of finding out anything?

 Sumption: There is a central archive for the storage of documents in the Holt Street offices of News Limited, isn’t there?—Philip: I don’t think so.

There is no central archive?—No.

Are each executive’s files stored separately?—Yes.

In their own offices?—Yes.

Sumption, ever the cynic, was quick to see pragmatic motivations for Philip the Hygeinist:

Sumption: And you were therefore conscious, were you not, of the danger of a document like the fax of 9 December becoming available to Seven for use in litigation?—Philip: Yes.

And that’s why you were concerned to destroy it?—Yes.

Such base queries need not concern us here. We have a loftier aim. We are concerned with business efficiency:

Sumption: Between 1998 and 2002 did the executives of News Limited use e-mail?—Philip: Yes.

Did that include you?—Yes.

Mr Macourt?—Yes.

New technology has been introduced, and Rupert Murdoch’s execs are not afraid to grapple with it.

Sumption: Are you aware that for the whole period of some five years covered by this dispute only 49 internal e-mails have been disclosed?—Philip: No.

Are you aware that, of those 49 e-mails, every single one is an e-mail that was found on a file of hard copy documents having been printed out at some stage and filed?—If that’s – I wasn’t aware of that, but that does not surprise me, that they were printed out. I think it is a common practice to print important e-mails out. It is my practice.

Throughout this passage Philip is courteous, polite, modest. It is his practice. You can see his logic: Important emails—let’s print them out then.

 Sumption: Did you know that, of the 49 hard copy e-mails that we have got, only 12 relate to the period before 31 December 2000?—Philip: I didn’t know that.

If not one e-mail has been retrieved from electronic storage, that seems to suggest on your evidence that every single individual executive’s computer records have disappeared?–Philip: I find that surprising. I would have thought my files – my own files are littered with copies of e-mails.

You mean your hard copy files or your computer files?—Hard copy files.

Yes. I’m asking you about the retrieval of e-mails from electronic storage. If not one e-mail has been retrieved from electronic storage as opposed to hard copy files, that suggests on your evidence that e-mails have disappeared from the personal computers of every relevant executive; is that your understanding of what has happened?—If that’s the total number of e-mails, then that’s the explanation, that they are not retained on their individual computers anymore.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. But it’s hard not to wonder how this affects the way that News keeps other business records, like circulation numbers. A while back I heard an anecdote that is probably just apocryphal that someone was hired as a consultant to modernize News Ltd’s circulation records. He was subsequently made redundant with a payout that stipulated he could not talk about what he had learned. The back offices of News here have always seemed to me like a dark pool–not perhaps by choice but simply because that’s the way the system works at News..

Sumption:  And are there so far as you are aware electronically stored e-mails on your hard disk still, or have they disappeared?—Philip: I think – I don’t think there would be any for the period – on the hard disk for the period covered by this litigation.

Is that because you have wiped them?—It is my practice to delete e-mails after approximately two weeks.

After approximately two weeks. Mr Philip, in your line of work, above all, it is surely important for you to conserve a record of what you have said to other people and what they have said to you; isn’t it?—I do that by printing out copies of the e-mails.

Email hygiene requires continued vigilance. In this account, News executives like Philip are the constant gardeners:

 Sumption: Does your business or does your office at any rate use Microsoft Outlook?—I think so, yes.

Are you aware that in order to delete an e-mail under that system 15 you have to do two separate actions. You have to delete it from your current files, and you have to delete it from the file of deleted e-mails?—Yes, I am aware of that.

So is the position that after about two weeks you deliberately delete your past e-mails from both places?—Yes.

Why do you do that, Mr Philip?—I delete them so that the record I have is the hard copy that I print out.

Why are you reluctant to have e-mails more than two weeks old remain even on the deleted files of your Outlook system?—I – I just think it is a sensible thing to do. If you wish to delete something permanently, delete it.

Q: I see. So is the position this: that you have a policy of deleting things from your deleted files after about two weeks in case in future somebody might read your e-mails and draw adverse conclusions about you or News Limited from them?—That’s one reason why, yes.

The full transcript is here, from page 10 Ian Philip News Ltd Dec 12 05

One thought on “Email hygiene: News Corp’s double delete

  1. Pingback: Rejoice, rejoice rejoice! - Page 34

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