Later this year, an army of men in tights will take on the forces of darkness across the world’s cinemas screens. And Sir Howard Stringer, Welsh-born boss of media and electronics giant Sony, could really do with the services of a superhero. Beset by a global hacking catastrophe unleashed by unknown forces, he should be calling for the services of Spider-Man, a hero who has pulled Sony out of trouble before. Instead, he’s left pinning his hopes on the Smurfs.
Hollywood is gearing up for a clash of the titans at the box office. Thor has just opened; X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America will follow. But the next film in Sony’s Spider-Man franchise won’t be out until 2012; instead, Sony will enter the fray this year with a 3D cartoon based on a team of diminutive blue-skinned adventurers from 1980s TV. Hollywood-watchers are expecting it to bomb. But even if it does, it will be the least of the 69-year-old’s problems.
Hackers have accessed an estimated 100m accounts on the Sony’s online gaming networks. It’s one of the worst internet break-ins of all time — analysts say it could cost Sony up to $24bn — and comes as Sony has striven to put its PlayStation games console at the centre of plans for a digital future.
The villains, according to Sony, left a taunting message: “We are legion” — a line used by the loose affiliation of hackers known as Anonymous. But Anonymous claims it is being framed: the collective targeted Sony after it started legal action against ace hacker George Hotz, but it has never been associated with credit card theft.
Sony trotted out Kazuo Hirai, Stringer’s heir apparent, to deliver Sony’s official mea culpa. “We apologise deeply for causing great unease and trouble to our users,” he told a press conference, bowing in shame. Then on Friday, in a blogpost, Stringer himself finally apologised for the “inconvenience and concern” caused by the breach.
The Sony boss also acknowledged criticism that the company had been slow in alerting its customers to the hack attack; a full week elapsed between Sony uncovering unusual activity in its systems and notifying users. Stringer said: “I wish we could have gotten the answers we needed sooner, but forensic analysis is a complex, time-consuming process. Hackers, after all, do their best to cover their tracks.” It is six years since Stringer became Sony’s first non-Japanese chief executive. The curly-haired Welshman doesn’t speak the language — he argues that it’s too hard to learn at his age — and took over a high-profile job in a country whose corporate culture is sometimes accused of being xenophobic. But he was the first choice of Nobuyuki Idei, then Sony’s chairman, who had shaken up the Japanese giant and was determined to bring in more outsiders.
The appointment was the highlight of a remarkable career. Stringer was born in Cardiff, Wales, his father a sergeant in the RAF (British air force), his mother a schoolteacher. The family moved to Aylesbury, north of London when he was a small boy and he won a scholarship to private school before studying modern history at Oxford University. His studies confirmed him as a lifelong liberal and in 1965 Stringer moved to New York, inspired by stories of the civil rights movement and John F. Kennedy.
He had just cashed his second paycheck as a clerk at CBS Radio when he was drafted to Vietnam. Instead of catching a plane back to Britain, he went to war, spending two years in the army and being decorated for valour.
After Vietnam he returned to CBS, rising through the ranks to become president and winning nine Emmys, including one for The CIA’s Secret Army, an expose of the U.S.’s undercover war against Cuba’s Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs. Stringer’s mix of charm and hard work made him one of the hottest media executives in the U.S.
Idei picked Stringer for Sony in 1997 after the latter had left CBS for a brief stint at the head of an ill-fated venture called Tele-TV. He was always going to stand out in Japan, but he was culturally adept in an unfamiliar environment, and was quick to introduce colleagues to the delights of Welsh golf courses.
Stringer can be blunt too — an unusual trait in Japanese corporate culture. He was in the running for director-general of the BBC at the end of the 1990s and during one interview someone asked him if he was a little too old for the job. “I’m only six weeks older than I was when you asked me to apply,” Stringer replied.
Unafraid to shake things up, he has slashed jobs at Sony, ousted high-profile executives and brought in more outsiders. But for all Stringer’s charm and ruthlessness, Sony is far from the innovative powerhouse it once was. Apple dominates digital music. Amazon’s Kindle is beating Sony’s Reader. LG, Samsung and Vizio have proved tough competition in HD TVs. The entire music business is suffering, and while film has been a good business for the company, this summer looks patchy at best.
PlayStation, too, faced stiff competition from Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox, but it has been a bright spot for the company’s digital strategy. There are 50m PlayStation 3s around the world, all capable of accessing a world of online content as well as playing games. Indeed, it was starting to look like Sony’s Trojan horse, a way to take the digital fight back to Apple and its rivals — but the hacking scandal has cast a dark shadow over those plans.
For years, Stringer has talked about returning to Britain. His family live in Oxfordshire, north west of London, and the Sony boss spends his time flying between there, New York and Tokyo. A welcome in the hillsides must look more tempting than ever now. Having risen in the west, perhaps Stringer’s long American odyssey is finally setting in the east.
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2011