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Washington Post Shake-Up renews attention on phone hacking in the UK

In 2011, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation media empire faced a serious threat in the UK. Reporters at one of his tabloids were exposed for hacking the phones of celebrities, private citizens and, in one case, a murdered child to obtain information.

Other wrongdoing quickly emerged, including revelations that for years, tabloid reporters had paid for information from police and government officials.

Desperate to contain the scandal and placate prosecutors in the UK and abroad, News Corp turned to Will Lewis, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, to clean up the mess.

He did it. In his account, he cooperated with authorities, revealed wrongdoing and helped put the operation in a new direction. However, some former colleagues and victims of the hack have long believed he helped News Corp cover up the extent of wrongdoing.

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

Last month, as Mr. Lewis prepared to restructure the Post newspaper, a London judge ruled that phone hacking victims could move forward with more allegations in the wide-ranging lawsuit. their. Although Mr. Lewis is not a defendant, the lawsuit asserts that his cleanup was partly a cover-up to protect News Corp. executives.

This week, Mr. Lewis was surprised when The Post’s executive editor quit ahead of the reorganization. The New York Times later reported that Mr. Lewis told her that reporting on legal developments in the hacking case represented a lapse in judgment.

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

Now, his newsroom overhaul appears much more complicated, as reporters question Mr. Lewis’s vision, his decision to hire two former subordinates as the Post’s top editors and whether he share their ethics or not.

The Post, in a statement, said he did so: “As an experienced publisher and former editor and editor-in-chief, William is clear about the lines that should not be crossed and his track record proves it.”

Mr. Lewis comes to The Post after serving as editor of The Wall Street Journal. But he worked in Britain, a country where journalists pay for scoops, hack into phones and secretly record politicians. The Telegraph’s biggest scoop under Mr. Lewis was when his reporters paid more than $150,000 to get confidential information about politicians’ spending requests.

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

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

“It seems so,” said Paul Farhi, who covered media for The Post until late last year. “Hired his friends, basically protecting his backside by telling stories that made him look bad. These will be unknowns at The Washington Post.”

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

The consequences were enormous, with a years-long public inquiry and charges in the criminal and civil courts. A tabloid newspaper, News Corp owned by News Corp, was closed. Costs related to the incident currently reach $1 billion, including damages to hundreds of victims.

Until 2010, Mr. Lewis had nothing to do with those matters. He is the editor of The Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet newspaper outside the Murdoch empire. Under his tenure, it broke the scandal of politicians using government spending accounts to fund lavish personal expenditures. Mr. Lewis later admitted 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 aftermath of a phone hack.

“In fact, he is a good choice,” said Mr. Farhi. cover up the scandal at that time. He said Mr. Lewis was highly respected in the British media. “His ethics are beyond question.”

Mr Lewis joined a small group called the Governance and Standards Committee to try to shift blame for the problems, find other wrongdoing and demonstrate that News Corp was committed to cleaning up its act .

As part of that effort, the commission provided police with details about journalists who hacked into phones or paid off public officials. Some journalists complain that they are blamed for accepted behavior.

Dan Evans, the former News of The World reporter who was prosecuted, provided evidence to the government and has since called for press reform, said: “He oversaw the throwing under the bus of journalists act according to standard procedure for decades.” “That’s the way it was done.”

Mr. Lewis rarely discusses this period in his career, but when he does, he describes himself as someone cleaning up a mess.

“My role is to make things right,” he said once told the BBC. “And that’s what I did.”

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

In court documents, phone hacking victims say Mr Lewis authorized the deletion of a large number of emails that could implicate senior News Corp figures in the scandal. The lawsuit claims that, under his supervision, eight filing cabinets filled with potential evidence disappeared.

The plaintiffs say that, instead of turning things over to the authorities, he ignored information that could have implicated senior executives. They asserted that he was part of a scheme to create a security threat to justify deleting emails.

He has denied wrongdoing. This lawsuit is one of many surrounding the long-standing hack. Many plaintiffs, including celebrities such as Elton John, their solution cases. Others, like Prince Harrycontinue to press their case.

Shortly after a number of allegations emerged in 2020, Mr Lewis was handed the job of BBC director general, arguably Britain’s most prominent media job.

Mr Lewis’s work on the Standards and Regulatory Commission placed him in Mr Murdoch’s inner circle and he was promoted in 2014. leading Dow JonesWall Street Journal publisher.

But his work on the committee has angered many staff at News Corp’s British newspapers. Some believe that junior reporters were sacrificed, as Mr. Evans describes it, “to stop their boss from wearing an orange jumpsuit.”

Despite working in London as chief executive of Dow Jones, Mr. Lewis rarely appears at the company’s main office, which shares space with The Sun, a tabloid where some employees News of the World staff came to work after the newspaper closed. Instead, he worked in a building miles away, former employees recalled.

The phone hacking scandal might have been old news if it weren’t for the changes at The Post.

The newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, Appointed Mr. Lewis became publisher late last year, and he began planning to divide the newspaper into three sections: core news, covering business and politics; 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 November election. Mr. Lewis went ahead and asked Ms. Buzbee to take over the job of running the new section. of the newspaper, an apparent demotion.

She suddenly gave up Last Sunday.

Soon after, The Times revealed that Mr. Lewis had berated Ms. Buzbee over the newspaper’s coverage of the hacking lawsuit. He did not approve of the judge’s plan to write about the ruling – which The Post ultimately did mention — that cleared the way for the plaintiffs to bring charges against him.

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

“In several conversations, Lewis repeatedly — and impatiently — offered me an exclusive interview about the future of The Post, as long as I dropped the story about the allegations,” Mr. Folkenflik wrote. . He didn’t make 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 called Mr. Folkenflik “an activist, not a journalist.”

Some politicians and press officials offered to exchange access for favorable coverage. But accepting such an agreement would violate most editorial rules. Therefore, such an offer from the prospective publisher of The Post was unusual and surprised journalists inside and outside the editorial office.

“He is using his position to protect his public image,” Mr. Farhi said. “That’s what reporters smell and they think someone is hiding something.”


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