Debonair and unflappable, former journalist Les Hinton served as Rupert Murdoch’s consigliere for over a decade, smoothing the ruffled feathers of the rich and powerful whenever they were on the receiving end of stories published in News International’s stable of titles. The former News International chairman now carries out a similar role as CEO of Dow Jones, which Murdoch bought in July 2007, an acquisition that gave him control of the Wall Street Journal.
Murdoch turned to Hinton to assuage concerns in the US over his ownership of the paper and convince senior journalists, along with the business community it serves, that he would not push through radical changes at a title that is widely revered in the States.
He persuaded the 65-year-old Hinton to return to the US, where he made his career working on Murdoch titles, in December 2007. Hinton was asked to reprise the ambassadorial role he carried out at Wapping, when he acted as a conduit between Murdoch and the political elite.
It was Hinton, a former Sun journalist who has worked for Murdoch for nearly 50 years, who dealt with the fallout following the arrest of former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman in August 2006, successfully drawing a line under the incident by insisting phone-tapping was not widespread at the News of the World, and that senior executives had no knowledge of the practice.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons culture select committee in March 2007, two months after Goodman was jailed, he told MPs: “I believe that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on.”
Hinton steered News International through several investigations that could have had serious consequences for the company, including a Press Complaints Commission inquiry into phone-tapping on Fleet Street and the culture committee’s inquiry into self-regulation of the press.
Goodman broke the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct, which includes strict rules on protecting privacy. Since 2004, it has stated that: “The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired … by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails” except where there is a public interest.
Hinton was chairman of the PCC code committee, which enforces the code of conduct, but after Goodman was jailed, he persuaded the PCC not to impose further sanctions.
Perhaps most importantly, he secured the resignation of Andy Coulson, then News of the World editor, accepting his decision to step down with: “deep sadness” and calling him a “newspaperman of great talent”. By resigning, Coulson avoided being questioned by the PCC, which began its investigation into phone-tapping shortly afterwards, and News International was spared further embarrassment.
In his appearance before the Commons media select committee in the wake of the Goodman scandal, Hinton warned that genuine investigations should not be caught in the fallout from the Goodman affair. “Placing too great an inhibition on people setting out to explore what are considered genuine issues of public concern is a dangerous thing to do,” he told MPs.
To replace Coulson, Hinton turned to his old friend Colin Myler, with whom he had worked at the Sun in the 1970s, calling him back from America, where he had been editing Murdoch’s tabloid New York Post. With a new regime in place at the News of the World, the Goodman episode began to fade from memory.
Hinton’s handling of the affair provided another example of his ability to deal with a potentially damaging scandal with the minimum of fuss.
Hinton was born in Bootle, the son of a soldier. His family moved to Australia when he was 15 and he landed a job on the Adelaide News, then run by a 28-year-old Rupert Murdoch. Six years later, he landed a job on the Sun, but it was in America that Hinton made his reputation, during a 20-year stint working in newspapers, magazines and television. He became an American citizen in the 80s.
Hinton returned to the UK in 1995 to become chairman of News International and carried out the diplomatic duties associated with the role with relish. In March 2007, he announced a self-imposed ban on paparazzi images of Prince William and Kate Middleton in all of his group’s publications, including the Sun, after Middleton complained to the PCC about harassment. That typified his ability to take a long-term view, striking compromises with establishment figures when it served News International’s corporate interests and protected its public image. The fact that he has since been sent to America to reassure those who still regard Murdoch with suspicion, and fear he could “dumb down” the Journal, illustrates how highly the media mogul regards him. It is little wonder one former colleague describes him as “Murdoch’s special envoy on earth”.
Hinton announced his engagement to Kath Raymond, a former aide to Gordon Brown, earlier this year.
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