Washington Post shock renews focus on phone hacking in UK

In 2011, Rupert Murdoch's media empire, News Corporation, faced a major threat in Britain. Journalists at one of its tabloids were reported for hacking into the phones of celebrities, private citizens and, in one case, a murdered child to obtain information.

More misdeeds soon emerged, including the revelation that tabloid journalists had paid for information from police officers and government officials for years.

Desperate to stop the scandal and appease prosecutors in Britain and abroad, News Corp asked Will Lewis, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, to clean up the mess.

He did just that. In his telling, he cooperated with authorities, revealed wrongdoing and helped set the operation on a new course. Some former colleagues and hacking victims, however, have long believed he helped News Corp cover up the extent of the wrongdoing.

Those allegations — nearly 15 years old and unproven — suddenly had new relevance and complicated Lewis' new job as editor of the Washington Post.

Last month, as Lewis prepared to restructure the Post's newsroom, a London judge ruled that phone hacking victims could pursue other charges in their wide-ranging lawsuit. Although Mr. Lewis is not a defendant, the lawsuit claims that the cleanup of him was partly a cover-up to protect News Corp. leaders.

This week, Mr. Lewis was caught by surprise when the Post's executive editor resigned ahead of its reorganization. Then, The New York Times reported that Mr. Lewis had told her that covering legal developments in the hacking case was an error of judgment.

An NPR reporter later revealed that Mr. Lewis had offered him a scoop in exchange for not publishing a story about the phone hacking scandal.

Now the overhaul of its newsroom looks much more complicated, with its reporters questioning Lewis' vision, his decision to hire two former stooges as the Post's top editors and whether he shares their ethics.

The Post, in a statement, said it did: “As a highly experienced publisher, former editor and editor-in-chief, William is very clear about the lines that should not be crossed and his track record attests to this.”

Mr. Lewis came to the Post after working as publisher of the Wall Street Journal. But he cut his teeth in Britain, a country where journalists paid for scoops, hacked phones and secretly recorded politicians. The Telegraph's biggest scoop under Lewis came when its journalists paid more than $150,000 for inside information on politicians' expense reports.

Such tactics are considered unethical in most American newsrooms, including The Post, the newspaper that changed the course of national news with its coverage of Watergate, CIA black sites and other major stories.

Now journalists are wondering whether he will bring a new journalistic sensibility and new ethical standards to Washington.

“It seems that way,” said Paul Farhi, who covered media for The Post until late last year. “Himing his friends, basically covering his own back by telling stories that don't make him look that good. These would be things unknown to the Washington Post.

The wiretapping scandal began with the discovery that British tabloid journalists had hacked into the phones of celebrities, sports stars and politicians, among others, to obtain scoops.

The consequences were enormous, with a year-long public inquiry and charges in the criminal and civil courts. A tabloid newspaper, the News of the World owned by News Corp, has closed its doors. Costs related to the episode now exceed $1 billion, including damages to hundreds of victims.

Until 2010, Mr. Lewis had nothing to do with these issues. He was the editor of the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper outside the Murdoch empire. Under his tenure, a scandal erupted over politicians' use of government spending accounts to finance lavish personal expenses. Mr Lewis later admitted that the newspaper paid around £150,000 (about $190,000 today) for the documents.

He joined News Corp in 2010 and a year later was tasked with dealing with the fallout from phone hacking.

“It was a good choice, actually,” said Farhi, who was following the scandal at the time. He said Mr Lewis was well respected in British media circles. “His ethics were not in question.”

Mr Lewis joined a small team called the Management and Standards Committee that attempted to assign blame for the problems, ferret out other wrongdoing and show that News Corp was committed to cleaning up its act.

As part of that effort, the committee provided police with detailed information about journalists who hacked phones or paid public officials. Some journalists have complained of being accused of accepted practices.

“He oversaw for decades the throwing under the bus of journalists who were acting according to standard procedure,” said Dan Evans, a former News of The World journalist who has stood trial, given evidence to authorities and has since called for a press reform. “That's the way things were done.”

Mr. Lewis rarely spoke about this period of his career, but, when he did, he described himself as if he were cleaning up a mess.

“My role was to put things right,” he once told the BBC. “And that's what I did.”

“I did everything I could to preserve journalistic integrity,” he told the Post recently.

In court documents, victims of phone hacking allege that Mr. Lewis allowed the deletion of huge volumes of emails that could have implicated senior News Corp. figures in the scandal. The indictment alleges that, under his control, eight file cabinets full of potential evidence have disappeared.

The plaintiffs say that, instead of handing everything over to the authorities, he ignored information that could have implicated senior managers. They claim it was part of a plan to fabricate a security threat to justify deleting the emails.

He denied any wrongdoing. The cause is one of many that have long revolved around the issue of hacking. Many plaintiffs, including celebrities like Elton John, have settled their cases. Others, like Prince Harry, continue to advance their cause.

Soon after some allegations emerged in 2020, Lewis was appointed director general of the BBC, arguably Britain's top media job.

Lewis's work on the Management and Standards Committee placed him in Murdoch's inner circle, and in 2014 he was promoted to head Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal.

But his work on the committee infuriated many staffers at News Corp's British newspapers. Some believed that low-level journalists had been sacrificed, as Evans describes it, “to keep his boss out of the orange jumpsuit.”

Although he was often in London as chief executive of Dow Jones, Lewis rarely showed up at the company's main office, which shared space with The Sun, a tabloid newspaper where some News of the World employees went to work after it closed. Instead he worked from a building miles away, former employees recalled.

The wiretapping scandal might have been old news if not for a change at the Post.

The paper's owner, Jeff Bezos, named Lewis editor late last year, and began planning to divide the paper into three sections: top news, which would include coverage of business and politics; opinion; and a new easy-to-read section focused on service journalism.

The Post's executive editor, Sally Buzbee, urged him not to make such a drastic change before the November election. Mr. Lewis went ahead and offered Ms. Buzbee a job managing the paper's new section, an apparent demotion.

Last Sunday she passed away suddenly.

Shortly thereafter, the Times revealed that Mr. Lewis had reprimanded Ms. Buzbee for the paper's coverage of the hacking lawsuit. She disapproved of his intention to write about a judge's ruling—which The Post eventually covered—that paved the way for plaintiffs to spread accusations against him.

Then came the report from David Folkenflik, a veteran NPR journalist, that Mr. Lewis had offered a deal in exchange for canceling a story.

“In several conversations, Lewis repeatedly — and warmly — offered to give me an exclusive interview about the future of the Post if I would drop the story of the allegations,” Folkenflik wrote. He didn't accept the deal.

Mr. Lewis told the Post on Thursday that his conversation with Mr. Folkenflik was not recorded and occurred before he joined the Post. He labeled Mr. Folkenflik “an activist, not a journalist.”

Some politicians and publicists offer to trade access for favorable coverage. But accepting such an agreement would violate most newsroom rules. So an offer like that from The Post's incoming publisher is unusual and surprised journalists inside and outside the newsroom.

“He is using his position to protect his public image,” Farhi said. “It's the thing that journalists smell and think someone is hiding something.”

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