Les Hinton: The News International Years As Rupert’s ‘Consigliere’

Over the past three-and-a-half years, Les Hinton had made a name for himself in the U.S. as something of a turnaround specialist, making good a Dow Jones that was considering options with management consultants before News Corp (NSDQ: NWS). stepped in to buy it. But for twelve years before that, he was the CEO of News International, the UK publishing arm of News Corp. that is at the center of phone hacking allegations and much more. It was that time at News International that has led to Hinton’s resignation today after 52 years with Rupert Murdoch.

To be clear, Hinton does not admit to being privy to any more about the hacking allegations today, than in 2007, when he answered questions at the Commons’ Culture Committe (which will be questioning James and Rupert Murdoch, as well as Rebekah Brooks, next Tuesday).

“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,” he wrote in a letter of resignation to Murdoch today.

But even if his claims that he did not know about the hacking are true, Hinton may have been an unwitting accomplice in the cover-up.

His job at News International was focused on “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,” as the Guardian put it back in 2009. Some of those stories, of course, were sourced by less-than-legal means.

Ultimately, in 2007, he used those talents to make strong — and apparently convincing — reassurances to officials that Goodman’s practices were an isolated incident.

Sometimes those “smoothing” talents did result in actual policy changes: at one point he imposed a ban on News International newspapers from using paparazzi pictures of Kate Middleton after she made a plea to the Press Complaints Commission. That was the kind of self-regulation that was supposed to hallmark the PCC, but clearly wasn’t enacted or enforced very much.

With a background as a reporter, Hinton would have been a key executive ally for the newspapers in the NI stable: he fundamentally believed in their power, even at a time when the newspaper industry was a rapidly shrinking market and moving away from its core business model centered around print.

At a time when others were starting to look at ways of cutting back, he invested £600 million ($967 million) in printing presses in 2006, a fact pointed out by a wide ranging profile of him by the Guardian in 2006.

But he was also starting to think about how online news could pay for itself, being one of the key advocates of pay walls long before The Times and NOTW moved to put them up.

“I think Les was very helpful in persuading Rupert not to take down the subscription wall [at the WSJ],” a source told Reuters. “And now of course, Rupert will put a wall around anything.”

Even after he left the UK for Dow Jones in 2009, he was thinking about how news could and should evolve in the UK, particularly in local markets with limited budgets.

Locals papers need to focus on going online only, he told the Telegraph. “You would need to provide core information with fewer journalists, concentrating on health patterns in the community, the school system, crime and the local courts system. You provide really high-quality coverage of [those areas] digitally – and then you provide links to international news and sport. At some point Johnston Press [where he is a shareholder] or someone in London is going to work this out.”