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New 'Washington Post' CEO accused of Murdoch tabloid hacking cover-up

Will Lewis (left) rides with controlling News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch as they leave the headquarters of his company's British publishing arm in July 2011. Murdoch tasked Lewis with helping to clean up a massive hacking scandal.
Peter Macdiarmid
Getty Images
Will Lewis (left) rides with controlling News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch as they leave the headquarters of his company's British publishing arm in July 2011. Murdoch tasked Lewis with helping to clean up a massive hacking scandal.

When Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos wanted an assured hand to right the newspaper's shaky finances, he turned to Will Lewis, a 54-year-old former editor of The Daily Telegraph and former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, whom he called "exceptional, tenacious." Lewis will start as the Post's publisher and CEO in early January.

A dozen years ago, media magnate Rupert Murdoch also turned to Lewis when he wanted to find someone to rectify the hacking and bribery scandals engulfing his British Sunday tabloid, News of the World.

Lewis' publicly stated charge was to root out newsroom corruption, cooperate with police and help settle claims from people targeted by the company's journalists for voicemail and email hacking. The Guardian called him "News Corp's clean-up campaigner."

A very different picture of Lewis emerges from material presented in London courtrooms in recent months and reviewed by NPR. The man picked to lead the Post — a paper with the slogan "Democracy Dies in Darkness" stands accused of helping to lead a massive cover-up of criminal activity when he was acting outside public view.

In lawsuits against News Corp.'s British newspapers, lawyers for Prince Harry and movie star Hugh Grant depict Lewis as a leader of a frenzied conspiracy to kneecap public officials hostile to a multibillion-dollar business deal and to delete millions of potentially damning emails. In addition, they allege, Lewis sought to shield the CEO of News Corp.'s British arm, News UK, from scrutiny and to conceal the extent of wrongdoing at News of the World's more profitable sister tabloid, The Sun.

In sum, the Duke of Sussex and Grant argue that Lewis was a linchpin of efforts to limit the fallout during a key period between late 2010 and 2012.

Will Lewis speaks in July 2017, when he was the publisher of <em>The Wall Street Journal</em> and CEO of Dow Jones.
Mike Coppola / Getty Images
Getty Images
Will Lewis speaks in July 2017, when he was the publisher of The Wall Street Journal and CEO of Dow Jones.

Fresh detail about lingering concerns

These concerns about Lewis' actions have been percolating for years.

Through a spokesperson, Lewis declined to comment to NPR for this story. He previously denied the broad outlines of these accusations, saying they are utterly unfounded. Lewis has not personally been sued as part of any of this current litigation, which offers greater specificity and sweep to the allegations.

In response to detailed questions from NPR for this story, News UK's chief spokesperson pointed to the December 2015 decision by prosecutors not to file criminal charges against the company. At that time, the Crown Prosecution Service said "there is no evidence to suggest that email deletion was undertaken in order to pervert the course of justice."

For years, people working on behalf of British tabloids routinely broke privacy laws by breaking into homes, tapping phones, hacking into voicemails and emails, and taking photographs and videos in private homes and businesses — all to sell papers. Politicians, celebrities, professional athletes, royals and actors were all seen by the press and much of the public as fair game for rough treatment.

That changed in 2011 when The Guardian revealed that News of the World had hacked into the voicemails of a missing 13-year-old schoolgirl who had been murdered. A flood of investigations and lawsuits ensued, expanding to much of the press.

On Friday, a British judge ruled that Prince Harry was the victim of phone hackingby Mirror Group Newspapers, a rival media outfit. The judge awarded him nearly $180,000 in damages. (Damages in British civil cases are typically more modest than those in the United States.)

As a publisher, News UK is in an undesirable category of its own, having paid approximately $1.5 billion in associated judgments, settlements, legal fees and related costs in the years since 2011 — more than 10 times how much the Mirror Group has reported paying. It's also more than the record $787 million the Murdochs' Fox Corp. paid to settle a landmark defamation suit against Fox News over lies it broadcast about fraud in the 2020 U.S. elections.

News UK also says that it has been "paying financial damages to those with proper claims" and that it has made "commercial sense," in some cases, to settle. It says its remaining tabloid, The Sun, does not accept liability or make any admissions to the allegations over disputed claims still going through the civil courts.

In a statement to the courts this year, Grant alleged that The Sun arranged "burglaries ... the breaking and entering of private property in order to obtain private information through bugging, landline tapping [and] phone hacking." He said it was done with the "knowledge and approval of Rebekah Brooks" — then the editor of The Sun and now the chief executive of News UK.

This spring, the lead trial lawyer for Grant and Prince Harry read from a timeline of the alleged cover-up in open court. He argued that News UK had acted to conceal the actions by The Sun for years, citing specific emails, memos and other documents. The two plaintiffs also allege that Lewis, among other News UK officials, misled police and that The Sun continued to hack people even as the company was being investigated. While the presiding judge has dismissed several of their claims, their cases are proceeding in the courts.

Prince Harry leaves court with his lawyer David Sherborne in June after testifying against Mirror Group Newspapers. The court agreed on Friday that the tabloid chain had unlawfully hacked into Harry's phone to learn private details.
Leon Neal / Getty Images
Getty Images
Prince Harry leaves court with his lawyer David Sherborne in June after testifying against Mirror Group Newspapers. The court agreed on Friday that the tabloid chain had unlawfully hacked into Harry's phone to learn private details.

A brief article with major implications

The full story begins nearly two decades ago.

In 2005, News of the World published a 156-word article revealing that Prince Harry's older brother, Prince William, had pulled a tendon while playing soccer with schoolchildren. Citing a friend of William, the item included the hospital that treated him, the care he received and a pal's nickname for Harry. William's aides complained to police: The nickname and other elements had been uttered only in voicemails, not in conversation.

A police raid on a private investigator with a six-figure contract with News of the World led to guilty pleas from the investigator and the paper's chief royals reporter. The paper's editor resigned, saying he took responsibility for a reporter gone rogue. He soon became a top spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron. Police and News Corp. assured the public that such hacking had been limited to a relatively few cases.

It wasn't. In 2010, The Guardian and The New York Times brought new examples to light.

Rupert Murdoch and his son James were counting on Cameron's new government, elected with the support of their newspapers, to embrace their drive to acquire a satellite TV giant. But some Liberal Democrat ministers in the governing coalition were skeptical of the deal, saying it might concentrate too much of the British press in one proprietor's hands.

Who is Will Lewis?

Will Lewis' career moved at a brisk pace through some of the most prestigious newspapers in the U.K. — at the other end of the spectrum from the tabloids.

He made his mark at the Financial Times, where he broke the news of the Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999 — at that time, the largest corporate merger in history. He subsequently served a three-year stint as business editor of the Murdochs' Sunday Times in London.

Lewis then joined the rival Daily Telegraph, where he was swiftly promoted to be the paper's editor — the youngest in its history. He published a series of stories about questionable expenses charged by lawmakers of all major political parties.

Controversy over Lewis' decision to pay a source about $170,000 for the computer records gave way to accolades for the stories it yielded.

Lewis won national awards for the paper and for himself. This earned him enemies in the bare-knuckle and greatly overlapping worlds of British journalism and politics.

In September 2010, Lewis joined News Corp. to aid Brooks, the new head of News UK. She had been the editor-in-chief of News of the World and The Sun during some of the years when hacking was alleged to have been rife, yet had risen within the company.

Two months after Lewis left the Telegraph, it sent two reporters undercover to speak with a key government official charged with determining whether the Murdochs could acquire Sky, a major satellite TV conglomerate. The minister, a Liberal Democrat, told his visitors, "I have declared war on Mr. Murdoch, and I think we're going to win." They recorded him on concealed video.

The Telegraph's video leaked to the BBC

On Dec. 21, 2010, the Telegraph's videotape of the official's remarks appeared not on the paper's website but on the BBC. The government official was discredited. The assignment to evaluate the Sky bid was given to another Cabinet minister who happened to socialize with the Murdochs.

The Telegraph's owners sought to find out how it had been beaten to the punch. The investigative firm Kroll concluded that Lewis arranged the leak to the BBC to help his new bosses by knocking out the official seen as hostile to the takeover deal, though Kroll did not have ironclad proof. Lewis declined to comment.

"Core to any journalist — and I'm included — is the protection of journalistic sources, whether they're my sources or someone else's sources," Lewis told a subsequent judicial inquiry. "Any way that I answer that question, helpful as I would like to be, would endanger that principle." The lead counsel for the inquiry appeared incredulous, though he said Lewis had otherwise been "a great assistance."

Afterward, Lewis hired a former Telegraph IT staffer. Prince Harry and Grant's lawyers suggest that it was a reward for helping to arrange the leak.

A month later, in January 2011, News UK lawyers learned of emails that implicated News of the World journalists in wrongdoing. And executives decided to delete millions of emails, the opposing lawyers contend.

Grant and Harry's legal team cites an email Lewis sent in early February 2011 to his IT chief. He relayed "the green light" from a top corporate lawyer to continue what he called "the email migration progress." The lawyers say that this phrase was code for mass erasures.

Within a few days, the company deleted more than 15 million emails sent prior to the start of 2008, they say. A police official wrote in a briefing memo that News Corp. informed police the next day that there was "no data" retained before Jan. 1, 2008, according to the lawyers' materials.

In all, more than 30 million emails would be deleted, the opposing lawyers say, though the efforts started before Lewis joined the company.

Early July brought news of the hacking of the voicemails of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and killed. When Rupert Murdoch sat down with Milly's parents and older sister in a suite at a luxury London hotel, Lewis was at his side. He quietly poured tea for those assembled.

Additional revelations ensued about the newspapers' hacking, bribery of police and more.

A tidal wave of repercussions

In swift succession, the Murdochs shuttered News of the World. Rebekah Brooks — often described as like a daughter to Rupert Murdoch — resigned. Murdoch and his son James apologized before a parliamentary committee. They sought to preserve the bid for broadcasting giant Sky, their own standing and the viability of The Sun, newly expanded to publish on Sundays to replace News of the World.

News UK's parent company, News Corp., appointed Lewis as one of just two executive members of a new Management and Standards Committee to ensure evidence was preserved and new policies were put in place.

Instead, the lawyers for Prince Harry and Grant argue, Lewis acted to protect the reputation of Brooks and The Sun.

Company executives gave police a hard drive that couldn't have belonged to Brooks, the lawyers allege; its encryption wasn't compatible with the company's computer systems. Brooks' emails from another laptop were also withheld, they say.

And they accuse Lewis of helping to blame a leading Labour Party MP — a critic of the Murdochs — for the need to delete emails, claiming he had paid to secure illegal access to her computer data. No evidence for this claim by News UK has been made public. Nor has a reason been given for why that would have required the deletions.

The fresh complaints allege Lewis made "false, misleading and/or materially incomplete" statements to police in December 2011 and January 2012.

The Murdochs withdrew their bid for Sky. Years later, they sold their stake. Brooks was charged with criminal conspiracy to commit hacking but was acquitted on four counts. She returned as News UK's chief executive in 2015 and remains in the job today.

Lewis' star continues to rise

Lewis' career flourished. In 2012, he moved to New York to become chief creative officer for News Corp. globally, which includes The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and many other outlets.

Two years later, Murdoch and News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson named Lewis the chief executive of its Dow Jones division and publisher of the Journal. He served for six years, earning marks as accomplished and sure-footed.

He stepped down in 2020, ambitions still intact.

Later that year, Lewis was on the shortlist to lead the BBC when some of these questions first arose about his involvement in the mass deletions of emails and other records, as first reported by Byline Investigates.

In 2021, Lewis created an online video service called The News Movement that's designed to unpack current events for a Generation Z audience. Last year, he rose to be vice chairman of the board of The Associated Press. And this fall, Lewis announced he had secured financing to acquire the Telegraph's parent company, which had been placed in bankruptcy.

Then Bezos and The Washington Post came calling.

Acting Post Chief Executive Patty Stonesifer declined to comment through a spokeswoman about what she knew of the allegations against Lewis in London before choosing him for the job of publisher and CEO. According to Vanity Fair, Lewis charmed Post staffers at a meet-and-greet gathering last month, despite standing behind the need for sharp job cuts.

In a profile of Lewis last month, reporters for the Post asked him about claims from Murdoch's former tabloid journalists that he "sold them out" by providing damning information to police. Lewis denied it.

"I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity," Lewis told them. The paper also stated that he said "he had a junior position" in News Corp.'s Management and Standards Committee.

He added: "I took a view very early on that I'm never going to talk about it. And it's either right or wrong that I've done that."

Lewis begins at the Post after the new year.

Copyright 2024 NPR

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.