Washington Post Shake-Up Renews Attention on U.K. Phone Hacking

In 2011, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corporation, faced a grave threat in Britain. Reporters at one of his tabloid newspapers were exposed for hacking the phones of celebrities, private citizens and, in one case, a murdered child for information.

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

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

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

Those accusations — nearly 15 years old and unproven — suddenly have fresh currency and have complicated Mr. Lewis’s new job as publisher of The Washington Post.

Last month, while Mr. Lewis prepared to restructure the Post newsroom, a judge in London ruled that victims of phone hacking could press ahead with more allegations in their wide-ranging lawsuit. Though Mr. Lewis is not a defendant, the lawsuit asserts that his cleanup was in part a cover-up to protect News Corp leaders.

This week, Mr. Lewis was caught off guard when The Post’s executive editor quit ahead of his reorganization. Then, The New York Times reported that Mr. Lewis had told her that covering the legal developments in the hacking case represented a lapse in judgment.

An NPR reporter followed with revelations that Mr. Lewis had offered him a scoop in exchange for not pursuing an article about the phone-hacking scandal.

Now his newsroom overhaul seems much more complicated, with his reporters questioning Mr. Lewis’s vision, his decision to hire two former underlings as top Post editors and whether he shares their ethics.

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

Mr. Lewis came to The Post after serving as publisher of The Wall Street Journal. But he cut his teeth in Britain, a country where journalists paid for scoops, hacked into phones and secretly taped politicians. The Telegraph’s biggest scoop under Mr. Lewis came when his reporters paid more than $150,000 for confidential information on politicians’ expense claims.

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

Now, reporters there are wondering whether he will bring new journalistic sensibilities, and ethical standards, to Washington.

“It looks that way,” said Paul Farhi, who until late last year covered media for The Post. “Hiring his cronies, basically protecting his own backside by talking down stories that don’t make him look so good. These would be unknown things at The Washington Post.”

The phone-hacking scandal began with revelations that tabloid journalists in Britain had hacked into the phones of celebrities, sports stars and politicians, among others, to get scoops.

The fallout was tremendous, with a yearlong public inquiry and allegations in criminal and civil courts. One tabloid newspaper, the News Corp-owned News of The World, folded. The costs related to the episode now top $1 billion, including damages to hundreds of victims.

Until 2010, Mr. Lewis had nothing to do with those issues. He was the editor of The Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet outside the Murdoch empire. Under his tenure, it broke a scandal about politicians’ using government expense accounts to fund lavish personal expenses. Mr. Lewis later acknowledged that the newspaper paid about 150,000 pounds (about $190,000 today) for the documents.

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

“He was a good choice, in effect,” said Mr. Farhi, who covered 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 ascribe blame for the problems, ferret out other wrongdoing and prove that News Corp was committed to cleaning up its act.

As part of that effort, the committee provided the police with detailed information on journalists who hacked into phones or paid public officials. Some journalists complained that they were being blamed for what had been accepted practices.

“He oversaw the throwing under the bus of journalists acting under standard procedure for decades,” said Dan Evans, a former News of The World reporter who was prosecuted, provided evidence to the authorities and has since called for press reform. “It’s the way things were done.”

Mr. Lewis has seldom discussed this period of his career, but, when he has, he has described himself as cleaning up a mess.

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

“I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity,” he told The Post recently.

In court documents, phone-hacking victims say that Mr. Lewis allowed the deletion of huge volumes of emails that could have implicated senior News Corp figures in the scandal. The lawsuit claims that, on his watch, eight filing cabinets full of potential evidence disappeared.

The plaintiffs say that, rather than turning over everything to the authorities, he ignored information that could have implicated senior executives. They assert that he was part of a scheme to fabricate a security threat to justify deleting emails.

He has denied wrongdoing. The lawsuit is one of many that have long swirled around the hacking affair. Many plaintiffs, including celebrities like Elton John, settled their cases. Others, like Prince Harry, continue to press their case.

Soon after some allegations surfaced in 2020, Mr. Lewis was passed over to be director general of the BBC, arguably Britain’s most prominent media job.

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

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

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

The phone-hacking scandal might have been old news had it not been for a shake-up at The Post.

The newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, appointed Mr. Lewis to be publisher late last year, and he began laying plans to split the paper into three sections: core news, which would include business and politics coverage; opinion; and a new, reader-friendly section focused on service journalism.

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

She abruptly quit last Sunday.

Soon after, The Times revealed that Mr. Lewis had scolded Ms. Buzbee over the newspaper’s coverage of the hacking lawsuit. He disapproved of plans to write about a judge’s ruling — which The Post ultimately covered — that cleared the way for plaintiffs to air allegations against him.

Then came the account from David Folkenflik, a veteran media reporter for NPR, that Mr. Lewis had offered a deal in exchange for quashing an article.

“In several conversations, Lewis repeatedly — and heatedly — offered to give me an exclusive interview about The Post’s future, as long as I dropped the story about the allegations,” Mr. Folkenflik wrote. He did not take the deal.

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

Some politicians and press officers do offer to trade access for favorable coverage. But accepting such a deal would violate most newsroom norms. So such an offer from the incoming publisher of The Post is unusual and surprised journalists in and out of the newsroom.

“He’s using his position to protect his public image,” Mr. Farhi said. “It’s the thing reporters get a whiff of, and they think someone’s hiding something.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *