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Rupert Murdoch and new 'Washington Post' CEO accused of cover-up in hacking scandal

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch (right) rides with Will Lewis, then the general manager of Murdoch's News International and now <em>The Washington Post</em>'s CEO, in July 2011.
Peter Macdiarmid
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Getty Images
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch (right) rides with Will Lewis, then the general manager of Murdoch's News International and now The Washington Post's CEO, in July 2011.

For the first time, media titan Rupert Murdoch was accused in court of personally knowing about phone hacking and other illegal acts by his British tabloids stretching back nearly two decades, far earlier than he admitted, and giving "knowingly false" evidence under oath in an official inquiry.

In addition, lawyers for Britain's Prince Harry, the actor Hugh Grant and other prominent figures accused The Washington Post's new publisher and chief executive, Will Lewis, of actively plotting to cover up senior executives' role in the scandal when he worked for the Murdoch publishing empire in London, now called News UK. NPR previously reported on these allegations against Lewis, but Wednesday's presentation fleshed them out with damning detail.

The accusations threaten to tether the two men together at a time when Lewis is seeking to push forward in his new role at the Post. Lewis and the Post declined comment through a newspaper spokesperson. An aide to Murdoch did not respond to a query seeking comment from the 93-year-old media mogul.

The accusations arose during an effort by litigants to amend their phone-hacking lawsuit against Murdoch's British newspaper arm. If successful, the case would lodge broader and deeper charges that place Murdoch, Lewis and News UK chief Rebekah Brooks, among other executives, at center stage.

Harry and the others are suing over a variety of forms of invasion of privacy, which include phone hacking, computer hacking, and payments to acquire confidential personal information.

Brooks, a former chief editor of Murdoch's News of the World and Sun tabloids, resigned as the head of his British publishing empire amid the scandal. She returned to the same job in 2015 after she was acquitted of criminal charges related to the hacking. Harry's lawyer, David Sherborne, wrote in legal briefs in support of the argument that Brooks "lied and/or gave deliberately misleading evidence" at her criminal trial. Sherborne is representing 40 plaintiffs.

Murdoch's News UK says the allegations and the documents on which they are based are too old to justify broadening the scope of the lawsuits.

"These proceedings have now been going on for over fifteen years and [the Murdoch publishing company] is seeking to bring them to a close," a spokesperson for News UK's tabloid division said in a statement. "Between 2011-2015, a large[-]scale police investigation resulted in the trials of many individuals in the criminal courts. Corporate liability was also investigated at length and, in 2015, the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no evidence to support charges against the company."

Sherborne says that the company has not been forthcoming and that his legal team received new information as recently as December 2023.

A widespread hacking scandal scars Britain

For years, investigators and journalists working for Murdoch's British tabloids had hacked into the voicemails and emails of royals, politicians and the stars of sports, music, movies and more. Revelations surfaced in isolated cases, starting with the arrest of a correspondent in 2006. Murdoch's executives insisted that this was the result of a "rogue reporter."

The scandal erupted into public view in 2011 when it became clear that the phones of everyday people had been hacked - including the victims of violent crime and veterans killed in combat.

Murdoch's tabloids weren't the only ones that took such actions, but they were considered — by far — the most grievous transgressors. To date, Murdoch's News Corp. has paid an estimated $1.5 billion in settlements and costs associated with the hacking scandal. Late last fall, it made a six-figure payment to former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, whose scandals had been intensely covered by the tabloids.

In court on Wednesday, Anthony Hudson, an attorney for News Corp.'s British tabloids, warned that the allegations "should be viewed with considerable caution," according to Reuters. "It has become increasingly clear that at least some members of the claimant group appear to be using this document as a vehicle for wider campaigning interests against the tabloid press."

Accusations against The Washington Post's CEO

Lewis, who joined News UK in 2010, was assigned to help Brooks reform the tabloids. According to Prince Harry's legal team, Lewis tried to cover up wrongdoing.

Lewis stands accused of helping to propagate a false tale that a leading member of Parliament had tried to access Brooks' computer data illegally, to justify the wiping clean of her emails. The hard drive of one of her two computers was later reported missing.

On the same day in late January 2011 that the plan to hide Brooks' emails was hatched, according to the plaintiffs, Brooks sent an email in which she said Lewis and a friend of his would "present a plan this week on our strategy - once KRM [Keith Rupert Murdoch] has the full facts from day one - from 2005 from me."

Sherborne used that email, a copy of which has been reviewed by NPR, to allege that Murdoch had been briefed on plans to hide evidence and cover up the scope of the scandal. News UK says it will not address specific allegations.

As NPR has previously reported, Grant and Harry's legal team cites an email Lewis sent in early February 2011 to News UK's IT chief. He relayed "the green light" from a top corporate lawyer to continue what he called "the email migration progress." The lawyers say that this phrase was code for mass erasures. The company subsequently deleted more than 15 million emails sent prior to the start of 2008, they say.

The next day, a police official wrote in a briefing memo that News Corp. informed police there was "no data" before Jan. 1, 2008. Other emails from later years were also erased.

The company and Murdoch apologized publicly for the hacking in July 2011 after The Guardian revealed that people working on behalf of News of the World had hacked into the voicemail messages of the mobile phone of a missing 13-year-old girl named Milly Dowler. She turned out to have been killed.

Subsequent scoops showed the practice to be widespread — "law breaking on an industrial scale," in the memorable words of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown's voice messages, his financial documents and his family's medical records had been targeted by the paper as well, through efforts at hacking and paying hospital staffers for private information that appeared in The Sun.

Murdoch named Lewis as one of three executives on a new Management and Standards Committee. It was designed, Murdoch said then, to aid prosecutors investigating the cases.

Instead, the lawyers allege, Lewis had been and continued to be part of damage control efforts as each passing day brought new damning revelations.

That summer, Lewis emailed the editor of The Sun to tell him to "stay calm" after Brown told a rival tabloid that he believed his son's medical information had been illegally obtained by The Sun. Lewis also advised the editor to secure a signed affidavit from the confidential source saying he did not have access to the medical records of Brown's son.

Harry's legal team argues that this shows a guilty intent to conceal the truth: that the paper had paid the hospital staffer for the information. The U.K.'s National Health Service has attested it is "probable" that this is where the information came from.

Murdoch and News Corp. later named Lewis publisher of The Wall Street Journal, a position he held from 2014 to 2020. He took command of The Washington Post under owner Jeff Bezos in January.

"I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity," Lewis told The Post last fall about his work addressing the tabloids hacking scandal at News UK. "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."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik
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.