As Will Lewis settles into his new gig as publisher of The Washington Post, a civil trial playing out in London’s high court could dredge up a controversial chapter from his past.
From mid-2011 to mid-2012, Lewis was an executive member of News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee, set up following the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s universe and led to the shutdown of the News of the World after 169 years.
While Lewis has described himself as a “junior” member of the operation, some refugees from News International say he played a lead role in what they call a “witch hunt” and claim he betrayed rank-and-file journalists to protect the brass.
Lewis and a representative for The Washington Post did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for News UK (formerly News International) declined to comment, and a rep for News Corp did not respond to a request for comment.
“Will Lewis’ behavior throughout that particular period of time was utterly disgusting,” Duncan Larcombe, who was the royal editor for The Sun for a decade, told The Daily Beast.
Larcombe was one of two dozen journalists charged with offenses based on evidence turned over by the Management and Standards Committee. Accused in 2015 of paying for stories about the royal family and the Sandhurst Military Academy while Princes William and Harry were enrolled, Larcombe was acquitted in 2016 and left The Sun to write a book.
At The Sun and News of The World, that era was dominated by a scoops-at-any-cost attitude, where paying off police officers and government officials for information was admittedly a daily occurrence. But when it was revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the voicemails of missing 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler, a national uproar ensued. London’s Metropolitan Police investigated News of the World staffers for potential misconduct, which then led to a number of probes into illegal activity at both the News of the World and sister title, the Sun. To this day there has been little accountability about who ordered and signed off on the hacking and the payments to the police and government officials. News Corp has spent a staggering amount of money, believed now to exceed $1 billion, to prevent these allegations being properly aired in court.
“Murdoch himself would pile pressure on the editors and the journalists to come up with great stories.”
Amid intense pressure, News Corp launched the Management and Standards Committee in response to concern that executives including Rupert Murdoch and his son James—who was running the UK-based News International—could be in legal jeopardy under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Lewis, who had been group general manager at News International, was appointed to the Committee, along with now-deceased former sports journalist Simon Greenberg (Lewis’ childhood friend and a former News of The World journalist). Alongside a team of some 100 lawyers from white-shoe firm Linklaters, and forensic accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, they worked from a secret bunker within News International’s east London location, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
The Committee handed over emails, payment requests, and other evidence to Scotland Yard for its three inquiries: Operation Weeting, which examined the phone hacking allegations; Operation Elveden, which probed payments to public officials; and Operation Tuleta, which focused on computer hacking.
The operations involved 200 officers and staff, who conducted dawn raids on journalists’ homes and arrested sources of News of the World and Sun reporters after the Committee shared their confidential information with the police.
More than a decade later, some of the targeted reporters remain traumatized and angry, particularly at Lewis, who has now risen to the upper echelons of American media.
“Turning over journalists who overwhelmingly turned out to be completely innocent [and who] had all their contacts and confidential sources handed over to the police—if that is his idea of good journalism, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” Larcombe said.
“Lewis would sort through the emails and invoices, which they then passed on to the Met. That was their job,” former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie told The Daily Beast.
MacKenzie was editor of the tabloid from 1981 to 1994, a period of great growth and frequent controversy, and later returned, twice, as a columnist. He was axed in 2017 after writing a column that compared a part-Nigerian soccer star to a “gorilla.”
He noted to The Daily Beast the irony that the reporters targeted in the Scotland Yard hacking and payments to public officials probes were simply trying to please the owner.
“Murdoch himself would pile pressure on the editors and the journalists to come up with great stories. Why? Because great stories meant great sales and great sales equals great advertising revenue,” he said.
“The very journalists which at one moment he is cheering home… the next moment [Murdoch] is throwing under the bus. Absolutely disgraceful actions which should hang around his neck in his new retirement,” he added.
“We were thrown to the wolves and had to stay silent for nearly four years before we could defend ourselves.”
“The two people that were doing that were Will Lewis and the guy who died (Greenberg). Will Lewis cannot get away from that, he cannot escape. He was essential to that process.”
Twenty-two Sun journalists were arrested at the time; only one was convicted—of paying a police officer for stories—but that verdict was overturned on appeal. One of the arrested journos, who asked to remain anonymous, said the repercussions were appalling.
“But his life seems to carry on and he has never acknowledged the wrong that he has done. The legends of journalism like Woodward and Bernstein would clearly be uncomfortable working for someone like Will Lewis.”
In an interview with the Post when he was named as publisher, Lewis said he had a “junior” position with the Management and Standards Committee, although a press release from News Corp when the committee was announced described him as a “full time executive member.”
“I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity,” Lewis told the Post. “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.”
Five current and former Post reporters told The Daily Beast more transparency about Lewis’ role and actions is needed.
“To what extent did Jeff Bezos know about any of these things?” a former senior Post staffer asked, referring to the Amazon founder who now owns the Post. Bezos did not respond to a call for comment.
Larcombe, who has written an upcoming book titled The Scum That I’ve Become about his years at The Sun, said he will never forgive Lewis or the Murdochs.
“We were thrown to the wolves and had to stay silent for nearly four years before we could defend ourselves. We were languishing on bail when they were deciding what we did wrong,” he said. “All the contacts I had in my phone were contacted by the police at that time. It was awful. I had sources that I really relied on and cultivated over a long period of time that have never spoken to me since.”
At the civil trial, which features around 40 plaintiffs including Prince Harry, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, the plaintiffs’ attorneys will allege that the Sun newspaper hired private investigators to “blag” private information and illegally hacked into people’s voicemails—charges the Sun strenuously denies.
Just like in the Dominion trial that Fox faced before settling at the last minute, News Corp is bracing for the disclosure of thousands of emails and documents relating to the allegations, many of which are between former Sun editor and now News Corp subsidiary News UK CEO, Rebekah Brooks, and her former number two, Lewis, according to two people familiar with the matter.
NPR reported late last year that Lewis orchestrated a “massive cover-up of criminal activity” when he was leading the MSC. Citing court documents, journalist David Folkenflik reported how Lewis himself stands accused of authorizing the deletion of millions of emails. Lewis has previously denied the allegations when they surfaced when he was in the running for the top job at the BBC.
For those who have closely observed the fallout from the phone hacking scandal, there is a deeper and somewhat more problematic danger lurking for the Washington Post.
“What should trouble those who are concerned about the editorial freedom of the Post and whether their sources are safe is that Mr. Lewis’ old bosses at News Corp know the truth about what happened and therefore now have a hold over the publisher of one of their rivals,” says Evan Harris, a former member of parliament who is working for the claimants team in the civil litigation. “I don’t know what Bezos was thinking.”