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New 'Washington Post' chiefs can’t shake their past in London

For decades, London's Fleet Street was the home of Britain's biggest newspapers, the tradition from which <em>Washington Post </em>CEO Will Lewis and incoming top editor Robert Winnett come.
Carl Court
Getty Images
For decades, London's Fleet Street was the home of Britain's biggest newspapers, the tradition from which Washington Post CEO Will Lewis and incoming top editor Robert Winnett come.

In five short months, new Washington Post chief executive and publisher Will Lewis has seeded the senior ranks of the paper’s management with at least five former close colleagues. The most recent is Robert Winnett, who worked with Lewis at two papers in the U.K. and is to start as the top editor over the Post’s core newsroom after the November elections.

Winnett is the deputy editor of the Telegraph Media Group in Britain.

A vast chasm divides common practices in the fiercely competitive confines of British journalism, where Lewis and Winnett made their mark, and what passes muster in the American news media. In several instances, their alleged conduct would raise red flags at major U.S. outlets, including The Washington Post.

Among the episodes: a six-figure payment for a major scoop; planting a junior reporter in a government job to secure secret documents; and relying on a private investigator who used subterfuge to secure private documents from their computers and phones. The investigator was later arrested.

On Saturday evening, The New York Times disclosed a specific instance in which a former reporter implicated both Lewis and Winnett in reporting that he believed relied on documents that were fraudulently obtained by a private investigator.

Lewis did not respond to detailed and repeated requests for comment from NPR for this article. Winnett also did not reply to specific queries sent directly to him and through the Telegraph Media Group.

The stakes are high. Post journalists ask what values Lewis and Winnett will import to the paper, renowned for its coverage of the Nixon-era Watergate scandals and for holding the most powerful figures in American life to account in the generations since.

“U.K. journalism often operates at a faster pace and it plays more fast and loose around the edges,” says Emily Bell, former media reporter and director of digital content for the British daily The Guardian.

A new publisher’s ire

Allegations in court that Lewis sought to cover up a wide-ranging phone hacking scandal more than a dozen years ago at Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers are proving to be a flashpoint for the new Post publisher.

On at least four occasions since being named to lead the Post last fall, Lewis tried to head off unwelcome scrutiny from Post journalists — and from NPR.

In December, before he started the job, Lewis intensely pressured me not to report on the accusations, which arose in British suits against Murdoch’s newspapers in the U.K. He also repeatedly offered me an exclusive interview on his business plans for the Post if I dropped the story. I did not. The ensuing NPR piece offered the first detailed reports on new material underlying allegations from Prince Harry and others.

Immediately after that article ran, Lewis told then-Executive Editor Sally Buzbee it was not newsworthy and that her teams should not follow it, according to a person with contemporaneous knowledge. That intervention is being reported here for the first time. The Post did not run a story.

Lewis has denied the hacking coverup claims and is not a defendant in the lawsuits. Nor is he being criminally prosecuted. Lewis has said he acted to ensure people who were hacked by Murdoch’s papers were compensated.

As previously reported, on separate occasions in March and May, Lewis angrily pressured Buzbee to ignore the story as further developments unfolded in court.

In May, for example, a British judge allowed plaintiffs to investigate Lewis’ role more deeply as part of their suits against the Murdoch newspapers. Lewis told her it represented a lapse in judgment to allow Post reporters to pursue it. Her abrupt departure was announced a few weeks after the Post published an extensive piece on the allegations involving Lewis.

While Buzbee’s ouster largely stemmed from her rejection of a diminished role under a restructuring by Lewis, some of her former colleagues say they fear it was influenced by her intent to report on the allegations against him.

Lewis denied pressuring Buzbee, though he did not deny what he said to me. Instead, he told Post reporters that I am “an activist, not a journalist.”

A spokesperson for the Post issued this statement: "The Washington Post sets and models the highest ethical standards in journalism to which every Post employee is expected to adhere."

This story is based on interviews with 10 current and former Post journalists, five British journalists, a review of documents cited in court in London and other public records and accounts.

They asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the moment.

A journalistic spy in the highest corridors of power

Two decades ago, Will Lewis and Rob Winnett worked together at The Sunday Times, which is part of the Murdoch empire. Lewis was the business editor and Winnett wrote on business and politics.

On Saturday evening, The New York Times disclosed two instances in which a former reporter for The Sunday Times said Lewis commissioned articles based on records that were allegedly fraudulently obtained. On one of those stories, the byline belonged to Winnett. (News UK, Murdoch’s British publishing arm, declined to comment to NPR.)

A year later, Winnett handled a junior reporter operating under unusual circumstances for The Sunday Times, according to the book Flat Earth News by the renowned British investigative reporter Nick Davies.

The reporter, Claire Newell, went to work for a temporary secretarial service and was placed inside the U.K. government Cabinet Office, which directly serves the prime minister.

The Sunday Times subsequently broke a series of often staggering stories based on the confidential documents Newell provided. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair demanded an investigation. Scotland Yard arrested and questioned Newell.

As Davies noted, "She was feeding back a succession of officially secret documents, any one of which could have landed her in jail if the government had chosen to prosecute Murdoch’s paper."

Authorities did not prosecute anyone involved. (Newell, now the investigations editor at The Telegraph under Winnett, did not reply to efforts seeking comment.)

An arrest of a newspaper’s private eye

In 2006, Lewis was named to lead The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper closely allied with the Tory party there. He became the youngest editor in its history and hired Winnett, who according to the rival Independent, was “known affectionately by colleagues as ‘rat boy’ for his scoop-sniffing cunning.”

Winnett brought Lewis an exclusive detailing the lavish expenses charged to taxpayers by British members of Parliament from all three major parties. The front-page stories generated reforms and resignations. Both men won awards.

Winnett’s exclusive came with a price tag: Lewis had to approve a 110,000-pound payment to acquire a stolen government database yielding the evidence, another editor revealed.

That would be barred under ethics codes at leading U.S. news organizations, such as The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post itself.

In 2010, at The Sunday Times, Newell hired a private investigator named John Ford to secure a copy of Blair’s memoir ahead of its release. Ford was the same investigator named in the New York Times piece.

Police arrested and questioned Ford over his acts accessing people’s devices and securing their personal material in pursuit of the story. Ford later wrote and said that he had been committing illegal acts on behalf of The Sunday Times since the mid 1990s — "phone interceptions, bank interceptions." The newspaper has previously said it did not hack into any phones but that misrepresentation to acquire documents is not always illegal in the U.K.

A "clean-up campaigner" accused of a coverup

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch (R) rides with News International General Manager Will Lewis as they leave headquarters on July 15, 2011 in London. Lewis is now the publisher of <em>The Washington Post.</em>
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
Getty Images
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch (R) rides with News International General Manager Will Lewis as they leave headquarters on July 15, 2011 in London. Lewis is now the publisher of The Washington Post.

By 2010, Lewis had returned to Murdoch’s fold. He became general manager of the British newspaper arm under Rebekah Brooks, a former tabloid newspaper turned chief executive.

As allegations of illegality at their tabloids burbled up, Murdoch and his son James named Lewis to a small corporate task force to help the parent company handle the mess.

The allegations included hacking into voicemails and emails, and the illegal procurement of financial and medical records as the tabloids pursued stories about members of the royal family, sports stars, Hollywood actors, singers, politicians and other celebrities. An outrage followed Davies’ revelation that crime victims, including a murdered 13-year-old girl, and war dead were among the targets.

Other newspapers came under fire for similar tactics. But the scale at the Murdoch press was vast and unrivaled. It has paid an estimated $1.5 billion to the targets of such illegal actions.

Lewis was publicly described as the point person working to ensure full compliance with police. The Guardian went so far as to call him Murdoch’s “clean-up campaigner.”

Lewis now stands accused in court of helping to engineer a cover-up, green-lighting the destruction of tens of millions of emails, hiding Rebekah Brooks’ computers, and inventing the claim that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was seeking to illegally obtain documents from her devices. Brown is now calling for a formal police investigation.

Lewis has denied impropriety but will not address specifics.

In 2010, Ford later alleged, Winnett helped Lewis to defend the investigator from legal consequences of his actions for The Sunday Times, even though Winnett was by that point at the rival Telegraph. Ford wrote that he concluded that they were using him as a buffer to protect editors.

“Robert Winnett ... was intimately involved with the arrangement of my legal defence,” Ford wrote years later in Byline Investigates. Ford said Winnett told him that there had been “high-level negotiations” with police to get him off: “Despite having been poached by The Telegraph while I was on bail, he remained in close contact with his friend Will Lewis.”

Ford said he received only a formal caution from police. Through an associate, Ford affirmed this account to NPR but did not comment further. He told the BBC that he had targeted 15 to 20 Labour Cabinet ministers for The Sunday Times, including Prime Ministers Blair and Brown

Subterfuge to sideline a critic

Among those currently suing News UK is former Business Minister Vince Cable. In 2010, Cable was to review Murdoch’s $15 billion bid to take over the British satellite giant Sky; the Murdochs already controlled about 40% of it.

Conservative PM David Cameron, who had been backed by the Murdochs, led the government; Cable belonged to the minority partner Liberal Democrats.

In a private meeting, Cable told two young women whom he believed to be constituents that he was “declaring war” on Murdoch.

The two women were undercover reporters for The Telegraph and had taped the encounter. While it mined the video for other embarrassing headlines, the paper left out any mention of the Murdochs or the Sky takeover deal, which the Telegraph’s owners opposed.

Instead, the BBC revealed the video, sparking a firestorm that sidelined Cable. Another minister who was a friend of James Murdoch was assigned to review the deal.

The BBC reporter who broke the story, Rob Peston, is a friend of Lewis. Winnett was a lead reporter on the Telegraph coverage of Cable. And Lewis hired two Telegraph IT staffers at News UK shortly after the story landed.

An investigative report by Kroll International in 2011, disclosed by Reuters, concluded that Lewis had likely been central to “orchestrating” the leak to the BBC, along with one of the tech staffers. The firm said it could not be absolutely certain.

In 2012, the lead counsel of a formal judicial inquiry into press abuses asked Lewis whether he helped leak the video of Cable. Lewis declined to answer, citing journalists’ obligation to protect their sources, though Lewis would have been the source, not the reporter. (Peston has not commented.)

In 2012, Lewis became an executive at parent company News Corp. He was named in 2014 to be publisher of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and chief executive of Dow Jones, which he led until 2020.

Relying on old friends to plot the future

The Post lost $77 million last year and about half of its digital audience since 2020. Lewis helped put Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal on a course to strong digital subscriptions. Owner Jeff Bezos named Lewis last year to put the paper back on track.

Since taking over, Lewis has surrounded himself with close colleagues from Murdoch days on both sides of the Atlantic.

At the Journal, Lewis elevated veteran editor Matt Murray to become editor in chief. At the Post, Lewis tapped him anew. Murray will oversee the core newsroom until November and then lead a new Post news unit focused on innovative content and revenue streams.

The chief growth officer, Karl Wells, worked for Lewis at the Journal and at Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun. The Post CEO’s director of communications, Elsa Makouezi, and his chief of staff, Eleanor Breen, worked with him at the Journal and at his startup. They’re both based in London.

Emily Bell says Lewis may be finding it hard to adapt to American values, despite his time at The Wall Street Journal — noting his patron there, Murdoch, was born in Australia and trained in Britain.

In the U.K., Bell says, newspapers are largely national in scope and engage in a ferocious battle for paying readers, advertisers and influence. Murdoch is among the most combative.

"In Britain, there are much more incestuous relationships, with much greater alignment of power rather than a genuine interest in actually holding power to account," Bell says. "And I think, if you bring that to The Washington Post, then I think you're going to see a lot of damage."

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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.