Washington Post Publisher and Incoming Editor Are Said to Have Used Stolen Records in Britain

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The publisher and incoming editor of The Washington Post used fraudulently obtained phone and company records in newspaper articles as journalists in London, according to a former colleague, the published account of a private investigator and an analysis of newspaper archives.

Will Lewis, The Post’s publisher, assigned one of the articles in 2004 as business editor of The Sunday Times. Another was written by Robert Winnett, whom Mr. Lewis recently announced as The Post’s next executive editor.

The use of deception, hacking and fraud is at the heart of a long-running British newspaper scandal, one that toppled a major tabloid in 2010 and led to years of lawsuits by celebrities who said that reporters improperly obtained their personal documents and voice mail messages.

Mr. Lewis has maintained that his only involvement in the controversy was helping to root out problematic behavior after the fact, while working for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

But a former Sunday Times reporter said on Friday that Mr. Lewis had personally assigned him to write an article in 2004 using phone records that the reporter understood to have been obtained through hacking.

After that story broke, a British businessman who was the subject of the article said publicly that his records had been stolen. The reporter, Peter Koenig, described Mr. Lewis as a talented editor — one of the best he had worked with. But as time went on, he said Mr. Lewis changed.

“His ambition outran his ethics,” Mr. Koenig said.

A second article in 2002 carried Mr. Winnett’s byline, and a private investigator who worked for The Sunday Times later publicly acknowledged using deception to land the materials.

Both articles were produced during a period when the newspaper has acknowledged paying the private detective explicitly to obtain material surreptitiously. That would violate the ethics codes of The Post and most American news organizations. The Sunday Times has said repeatedly that it has never paid anyone to act illegally.

A New York Times review of Mr. Lewis’s career also raised new questions about his decision in 2009, as editor of The Daily Telegraph in Britain, to pay more than 100,000 pounds for information from a source. Paying for information is prohibited in most American newsrooms.

In a meeting with Post journalists in November, Mr. Lewis defended the payments, saying that the money had been put into an escrow account to protect a source. But the consultant who brokered the deal said in a recent interview that there had been no escrow account and that he had doled out the money to sources himself.

A Washington Post spokeswoman said that Mr. Lewis declined to answer a list of questions. The paper has previously said, “​​William is very clear about the lines that should not be crossed, and his track record attests to that.” In a series of discussions with Post journalists this week, Mr. Lewis has said that as publisher, his role is to create an environment where great journalism can flourish and that he will never interfere.

Mr. Winnett did not answer phone calls or respond to questions sent by WhatsApp and email. The Post referred questions to his spokeswoman, who did not respond.

Mr. Lewis praised Mr. Winnett this month in a meeting with Post journalists. “He’s a brilliant investigative journalist,” Mr. Lewis said. “And he will restore an even greater degree of investigative rigor to our organization.”

Together, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Winnett will lead one of the most important news organizations in the United States, one that has a deep history of providing independent checks on governments and holding the powerful accountable. Amid newsroom upheaval in the run-up to an election, journalists inside and outside The Post have asked whether the new leaders share their ethical foundation.

Mr. Lewis was publisher of The Wall Street Journal from 2014 to 2020. During his tenure, the paper maintained its reputation for high journalistic standards and won Pulitzer Prizes, including for revealing hush-money payments by Donald J. Trump before the 2016 election.

Turmoil at The Post, though, has brought new scrutiny to Mr. Lewis’s early career, particularly at The Sunday Times.

It has been well documented that reporters at that reputable broadsheet newspaper relied on fraudulently obtained material for articles up through the early 2000s.

But the scandal that followed that period mainly centered on tabloid journalists, so Mr. Lewis and Mr. Winnett remained on the periphery of the controversy.

In 2002, Mr. Winnett landed a scoop.

Mercedes was re-releasing the Maybach, a German luxury car that was popular in the 1930s and that The Sunday Times called “the Nazis’ favorite limousine.” Prominent British figures were lining up to place orders. Mr. Winnett had a list of names, including a member of the House of Lords, a major political donor and an insurance industry leader.

The article did not say how Mr. Winnett had obtained the names, only that the people in question were “understood to have placed orders.”

Many years later, a private investigator named John Ford publicly revealed his long career working for The Sunday Times. He said he had rifled through people’s garbage and surreptitiously gained access to the bank, phone and company records of British politicians and other public figures.

In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Mr. Ford spoke regretfully about his work for a June 2002 article revealing the Maybach buyers. Mr. Winnett’s article is the only one that fits that description. But because the original article is not readily available online, it has not been linked publicly to him.

The New York Times reviewed the June 9, 2002, article in Factiva, a subscription news database.

In the Guardian interview, Mr. Ford said he had called the Mercedes dealer and, in a fake accent, claimed to be a German key fob manufacturer who needed to see a list of buyers so he could confirm the spellings of their names. The man on the other end of the line was fired after the article ran, he said.

Mr. Ford, who has stopped giving news interviews, declined to comment.

Mr. Lewis became business editor in 2002, a few months after the Maybach article ran, and became Mr. Winnett’s boss.

In 2004, Mr. Lewis pulled another business reporter aside after the regular Tuesday editorial meeting and gave him an assignment, according to the reporter, Mr. Koenig.

Mr. Koenig recalled in an interview with The New York Times that Mr. Lewis told him to look into conversations between two businessmen involved in the possible sale of a retail chain. Mr. Koenig said he was given copies of phone records — he believes by Mr. Lewis himself.

“My understanding at the time was that they had been hacked,” Mr. Koenig said.

Armed with the records, Mr. Koenig said, he persuaded one of the businessmen, Stuart Rose — who was then the chief executive of the retailer Marks & Spencer and is now a member of the House of Lords — to give him an interview to explain the calls.

The June 2004 article by Mr. Koenig contains down-to-the minute details of Mr. Rose’s phone calls. The article did not say where the information had come from.

Mr. Koenig said he was almost certain that Mr. Lewis edited the article himself. It would have been highly unusual for any other senior editor to review business articles, he said.

Mr. Lewis himself wrote a first-person article that same day about Mr. Rose and his role in a possible Marks & Spencer deal. In it, Mr. Lewis describes personally getting the tip to look into the deal and refers to the phone calls. “I am told Rose started Friday, May 7, with a call to his public relations adviser,” Mr. Lewis wrote.

And in a separate article also written by Mr. Lewis and published that day, he takes note of the precise timing of another phone call.

Days later, Marks & Spencer announced that Mr. Rose’s phone records had been hacked.

The culprit who obtained the phone records in the Marks & Spencer case has never been publicly identified. It was widely reported at the time that someone had contacted the phone company, posed as Mr. Rose and sought his records.

That sort of deception, known in Britain as blagging, would years later become central to a scandal that engulfed Mr. Murdoch’s British media empire and exposed the tactics that reporters at his and other Fleet Street tabloids used to invade the privacy of people they wrote about.

The word “hacking” is often used as a shorthand for a variety of tactics, including blagging, that became known as British journalism’s “dark arts.” The methods are generally illegal, but British law makes an exception for blagging when the information is obtained in the public interest.

After The Guardian, and then The New York Times, revealed the extent of such practices at The News of the World in 2010, the controversy forced Mr. Murdoch to shutter the paper.

Lawsuits followed, but they focused almost exclusively on the actions of tabloid newspapers. Broadsheets like The Sunday Times remained mostly above the fray. Only years later have details spilled into public view.

“All senior editors and most reporters at The Sunday Times knew that I obtained illegal phone billing data and bank account transactions, almost every week, for stories,” Mr. Ford said in a 2018 interview with the British news site Byline Investigates.

In the interview, Mr. Ford said he was paid up to £40,000 a year, about $72,000 at the time. John Witherow, then the newspaper’s top editor, who was Mr. Lewis’s boss, acknowledged that the paper had hired Mr. Ford as a blagger for various investigations.

“He was employed because of his skills for impersonation. Is that right?” Mr. Witherow was asked during a 2012 government inquiry.

“Sounds like it,” the editor replied.

In a later article, Mr. Ford himself wrote that he had considered Mr. Winnett a close friend. After Mr. Ford was arrested in 2010 on a blagging-related fraud charge, he said in the article, The Sunday Times paid his legal fees. Mr. Winnett “was intimately involved with the arrangement of my legal defense,” Mr. Ford wrote.

Mr. Ford ultimately received a formal warning, but not a conviction, in the case.

Mr. Lewis has said little over the years about the phone hacking scandal. When he has discussed it, he has presented himself as someone who cooperated with the authorities and helped News Corporation root out wrongdoing.

“My role was to put things right, and that is what I did,” he told the BBC in 2020.

The hacking scandal has roared back into Mr. Lewis’s life recently as he works to reorganize the Post newsroom. His executive editor, Sally Buzbee, quit over that plan. Days later, The New York Times revealed that Mr. Lewis had scolded her for covering developments in a British phone hacking lawsuit that named him. Mr. Lewis has denied pressuring Ms. Buzbee.

Then, an NPR reporter revealed that Mr. Lewis had offered an exclusive interview if he promised not to write about the phone hacking case.

Mr. Lewis has also faced questions about another scoop that he and Mr. Winnett delivered in ways that would not have been considered ethical in most American newsrooms.

In 2009, while Mr. Lewis was editor of The Daily Telegraph, Mr. Winnett revealed that politicians had used government expense accounts to spend lavishly. The article ignited a major political scandal.

The article was based on records that The Telegraph had bought from a security consultant for more than $120,000.

In his meeting with Post journalists in November, Mr. Lewis defended his article. He told the staff that The Telegraph had spent the money to help protect a source. “I agreed to put money in escrow for legal protections,” Mr. Lewis said, according to The Post.

In an interview with The New York Times this past week, the security consultant described a far less formal arrangement.

“It was not an escrow account,” said the consultant, John Wick. He said that he had collected the money himself, on behalf of the source. “I held it and I released it when and how I thought it was needed.”

Mr. Wick said that he had arranged the deal with Mr. Winnett: £10,000 for a chance to review the information, then another £100,000 for the exclusive right to it.

Mr. Wick said he did not tell Mr. Winnett or Mr. Lewis what he did with the money.

Kitty Bennett and Julie Tate contributed research.



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