July 19, 2024

The Washington Post has published an investigation that accuses its own future editor of using the work of a self-described blagger who stole private records to order.

Under the headline “Incoming Post editor tied to self-described ‘thief’ who claimed role in his reporting”, the newspaper claimed that Robert Winnett used material from a self-confessed blagger, John Ford, while working as a journalist on the Sunday Times during the 2000s.

Winnett, who runs the Daily Telegraph’s newsroom, is due to become the editor of the Washington Post in the autumn.

If the British journalist does take up the post, he will inherit a publication in turmoil, filled with journalists who have been digging through Winnett’s record as a reporter.

The Washington Post’s near 3,000-word report relies heavily on a 2018 interview with Ford published by the Guardian, in which the former actor gave numerous examples of his extensive work as a “blagger” for the Sunday Times.

The US outlet has now directly linked some of these examples to Winnett, who worked at the weekend outlet during the 2000s before moving to the Telegraph.

It suggests exclusive stories by Winnett about a takeover of Leeds United, Tony Blair’s finances, and the client list for a new Mercedes-Benz model were all connected to work by Ford.

Ford has described himself as a “common thief” who was a master of mimicry and would put on accents to talk banks into handing over information. Although such blagging is against the law, it can often be legally justified if there is a public interest in the information that is revealed.

He specialised in blagging financial and phone records but also got his hands dirty on behalf of the Sunday Times. During the early 2000s he would root through the bins of New Labour figures while hunting for stories, with Alastair Campbell’s refuse a particularly good source of stories.

He worked for the newspaper for many years before accepting a police caution for a bodged attempt in 2010 to blag a pre-release copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography from the book’s publisher. He was paid £2,100 by the Sunday Times for the failed blag but his work for the paper dried up after the arrest, which took place amid growing scrutiny of the dark arts of British journalism.

According to the Post, when Ford was arrested he turned to his old colleague Winnett for help. The journalist allegedly helped find him a lawyer, obtained an untraceable phone for future communications “and reassured Ford that the ‘remarkable omertà’ of British journalism would ensure his clandestine efforts would never come to light”.

The Washington Post, owned by the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has been in turmoil since the appointment last year of a new chief executive, Will Lewis.

Lewis, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, has been tasked with turning around the newspaper’s fortunes and improving its financial position after years of heavy losses. His arrival has instead prompted renewed attention on his past links to the News UK phone-hacking scandal.

In recent weeks Lewis has been accused of trying to kill stories by his outlet about his links to phone hacking, contributing to the departure of the former editor Sally Buzbee. A spokesperson for Lewis has denied that the publisher put pressure on his editor.

Lewis has now tasked Winnett, a former colleague, with leading the US newsroom. The duo worked together on the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, which dominated the news for weeks after the Telegraph paid £110,000 for a stolen disc featuring politicians’ spending data. The decision to pay for the information has raised eyebrows in the US, where buying up stories is against journalistic norms.

Lewis has been damning of the current state of the Washington Post. According to Vanity Fair, he recently told the outlet’s journalists: “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it any more. So I’ve had to take decisive, urgent action to set us on a different path, sourcing talent that I have worked with that are the best of the best.”

News UK said: “The Sunday Times has a strong record of investigative journalism over decades and has employed many contributors and researchers to work on stories, or parts of stories. The paper strongly rejects the accusation that it has in the past retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally.

“Some allegations related to the research work of John Ford have been aired previously and we cannot comment on the specifics of these new allegations, which all predate 2011.”

Winnett did not respond to the Washington Post’s request for comment. The Guardian has approached him and his employer, the Daily Telegraph, for comment.