July 19, 2024

Some are born into worlds where men wear $1,100 calfskin-and-suede Zegna sneakers. Others have to scrap, hustle and charm their way into them. There was nothing given about the ascent of Will Lewis—who wears his Zegnas in navy blue with the white leather strap—to the top of the Washington Post.

Lewis, 55, is not a product of the playing fields of Eton, or any of England’s grand institutions. He was sent to Whitefield, a post-war public school built on the site of a disused waterworks. It was next to a vast shopping mall and the pulsating ten-lane highway that cuts through London’s northern suburbs.

Other British men running American newsrooms—CNN’s Mark Thompson, Bloomberg’s John Micklethwait—were privately educated in august surroundings before going “up” to Oxford. Lewis’s parents could have sent him to a private school (his father ran a packaging business) but they were and the Washington Post alleged that Lewis had used stolen phone records as the basis for a Sunday Times story.)

Lewis also had a good relationship with Robert Thomson, one of Murdoch’s best-loved lieutenants. They had gotten close at the FT, where Lewis had broken the news of the ExxonMobil merger in 1999 from New York while Thomson was running the title in the U.S. “It was a rare if not unprecedented moment where the FT beat Wall Street on a major U.S. business story,” a colleague recalls. It greatly accelerated Lewis’ rise at the paper and enamored him to Thomson.

For two decades, Lewis had impressed in London and New York by breaking news. Now he was being brought inside, where he could prove himself only to Murdoch. But the rewards for doing that, if he did, were legion. He had no clear remit. He would soon acquire one.

Serving Murdoch

Lewis showed his worth to Murdoch almost immediately. He joined News International in September 2010. (The company later became News UK.) At the time, Murdoch was bidding to take control of BSkyB, the British broadcaster. The deal was deeply significant to him. It was also in peril: the U.K. cabinet minister in charge of approving the bid privately opposed it. Murdoch’s camp suspected this but couldn’t prove it. Lewis, it seems, soon found something that did.

In December 2010, an unpublished recording of the cabinet minister, Vince Cable, was stolen from the Telegraph’s servers and leaked to the BBC. Cable could be heard describing himself as “at war with the Murdochs,” revealing quite how antagonistic he was. The revelation forced him to recuse himself from the bid. A more pliable minister took over, increasing Murdoch’s odds of approval.

Seven months later private investigators hired by the Telegraph reported that, based on telephone records, they had a “strong suspicion” Lewis was “involved in orchestrating the leak,” or theft, from the Telegraph’s servers. The recording had been leaked to the BBC’s Robert Peston, an ally of Lewis at the FT and friend to this day. Lewis later refused to address the allegation, claiming protection of sources.

The Houses of Parliament in London at night.

The Houses of Parliament in London at night.

Tim Ireland – PA Images via Getty Images

If the PIs were right, Lewis had acted as a corporate spy, blindsiding the very paper he had just stopped editing—through which he had made his name as an editor only a year earlier.

He soon found another way to aid Murdoch. The phone hacking scandal had broken by chance as Lewis arrived in September 2010. He had had nothing to do with hacking, yet by January 2011 his life was consumed by the fallout. He earned Murdoch’s trust by working directly for him on the response.

In June 2011, it was revealed that the News of the World, Murdoch’s now-defunct tabloid, had in 2002 hacked the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager, deleting messages and misleading the police and her parents. The news turned the slow-burning hacking story into a national outrage. When Murdoch visited the family to apologize, he took Lewis.

The allegations against Lewis date from this time; he did more than accompany Murdoch on visits. “He was the link man for News [International] clearing up the phone hacking mess,” says a friend who worked with him then. Court documents present Lewis as being a key executive responsible for preserving all the evidence the company held relevant to any hacking its journalists had committed. The claimants allege that much of it went missing on his watch.

These claims of a corporate cover up, and any part Lewis played in it, were not known at the time. They have surfaced slowly, as Prince Harry’s case against Murdoch has wound its way through the London courts. Lewis was named only in 2020.

The allegations are explosive and unproven. It is alleged that Lewis took part in the destruction of 30 million company emails on three occasions over six months, deliberately wiping out evidence that could have incriminated senior executives. This was allegedly done despite News International having been told to preserve evidence, first by lawyers acting for victims of hacking and later by the police.

Eight filing cabinets full of documents, taken from the offices of the News of the World, are also alleged to have disappeared after being entrusted to Lewis’s care.

Missing Surrey teenager Amanda Dowler (left) also known as Milly, and her elder sister Gemma. Amanda, who is known by friends and family as Milly, vanished as she walked to her home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, from the nearby railway station.

Missing Surrey teenager Amanda Dowler (left) and her elder sister Gemma. Amanda, known by friends and family as Milly, vanished as she walked to her home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, from the nearby railway station.

Fiona Hanson/PA Images via Getty Images

In the early 2010s, no such accusations haunted Lewis. But another of his acts for Murdoch soon did. In 2011—after allegedly perverting the course of justice by failing to preserve evidence relevant to hacking, according to court documents—a company committee run by Lewis voluntarily turned over a different set of records that showed journalists at Murdoch’s tabloids had paid police and prison officers.

These journalists were arrested and forced to stand trial for reporting leaked information. None of them were convicted, but they took the heat (their sources were sent to prison). The episode left Lewis reviled by Murdoch’s rank-and-file. He had to work off-site, and at one point deployed a bodyguard. “The journalists thought he was there to give them up and save management,” says an informed observer, adding: “which he was.”

The police had no knowledge of such payments to police before News International alerted them. Murdoch later disowned Lewis’ actions when he met with Sun journalists in 2013. But Lewis’ approach had an inevitable upside for Murdoch. It dragged attention away from hacking (which Murdoch has since spent $1.5 billion settling in legal fees, damages, and estimated losses). Lewis’ friends say that he was simply draining the swamp. “I know that Will felt at the time 100 percent morally justified in playing the part that he did,” says one of them.

For two years Lewis served Murdoch at every turn, even at the cost of his own relationships or reputation. In that time he went from being Britain’s most feted journalist to an executive who couldn’t set foot in a tabloid newsroom.

Searching for Relevance

In the summer of 2012, Lewis finally freed himself from the burdens of Murdoch’s black box. The suit brought by Harry’s lawyers casts him as a real-life Tom Wambsgans, serving corporate time in the hope of higher office, praying past deeds stay past.

He was named chief creative officer of News Corp, a “totally made-up job,” as an executive puts it. After two years of service, he spent the next two in relative obscurity, his time split between London and New York. Finally, in 2014, he was rewarded with six years in power, as CEO of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, one of the most prized media jobs in Murdoch’s news empire. Crucially the job was not in London. He was empowered in a city where his checkered two-year tenure at News International didn’t matter.

Subscriptions tripled over his tenure, with Trump’s rise fueling demand for quality media. He left in 2020 having run out of room in which to rise. The only role bigger at News Corp was Thomson’s. An executive estimates he was being paid around $3 million by the end of his decade with Murdoch.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, gives a thumbs up as he leaves after giving evidence at the Mirror Group Phone hacking trial at the Rolls Building at High Court in London.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, gives a thumbs up as he leaves after giving evidence at the Mirror Group Phone hacking trial at the Rolls Building at High Court in London.

Carl Court/Getty Images

His standing had been transformed. He had been picked up by Murdoch as a discarded editor. After Dow Jones he was in a new weight category. Within a month he made a four-person shortlist of candidates to be the BBC’s next director general, a thankless but prestigious role. Days later he was named in Harry’s suit for the first time.

“My role was to put things right, and that is what I did,” he told the BBC in response to the accusations. Right for whom? Lewis didn’t say. The director generalship went to a BBC insider. If it had gone to Lewis, the allegations may well have become the focus of intense media interest in Britain.

Lewis struck out on his own, returning to the grooves of the ill-fated Euston project he had left the Telegraph with a decade earlier. He launched a new outlet, The News Movement, raising $15 million alongside co-founders from Dow Jones and bringing on a deposed BBC News executive as editor-in-chief. It targeted younger viewers with short explainer videos. It was Lewis’s second bid at running a start-up. It has struggled to make an impact.

An acquaintance says Lewis was also doing crisis PR on the side. His company remains active. Lewis has resigned from it but continues to send a weekly private newsletter to clients. (He has been making light of the past fortnight, ignoring it and writing about his mother’s missing cat.) “You know, something that actually made money.” He took on one client pro bono in February 2022: Boris Johnson.

The 12 Questions WaPo Staffers Need to Ask CEO Will Lewis

The Johnson Deal

Britain’s then-prime minister was on the verge of losing power. His standing had collapsed after he lied repeatedly over whether he and his staff had partied at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s offices and residence, through a national lockdown imposed by his own government.

Lewis told friends he had known Johnson forever and wanted to help. He had paid Johnson $250,000-a-year as a columnist for the Telegraph during his editorship. With Johnson rapidly losing altitude, Lewis assembled a new team in a bid to save him; a plan known in the British press as “Operation Save Big Dog.” “Boris would have made Will chief of staff in No 10 if he wanted,” a member of that team tells me.

Lewis stayed in the background. Johnson resigned in July. Two days later Lewis strolled onto the terrace at Chequers, the prime minister’s countryside retreat, bedecked in sunglasses, jeans, a T-shirt, a watch and a wearable, “looking like a tech bro, walking like he owned the place,” says someone present. Lewis was there for a consolatory lunch for the team he had put together.

Johnson went on to hand Lewis a knighthood in his resignation honors list. Only five other men were handed knighthoods by Johnson: four were loyal Members of Parliament, a fifth was co-chair of the Tory Party. It is not yet clear what Lewis did between February and July to justify such a reward from Johnson, whose patronage has tended to be transactional, not generous. “There is a theme of rewards in Lewis’ career,” says someone who worked with him in the 2010s.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves number 10, Downing Street.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves number 10, Downing Street.

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Lewis became a “Sir”; his wife, Rebecca, with whom he has four children, became “Lady Lewis.” But Johnson was finished and he was stuck. He assembled a bid for the Telegraph that went nowhere, briefing it out in a photo shoot taken in the News Movement offices. Those photos reveal a man remade.

As an editor Lewis liked to be photographed in a shirt and tie, no jacket: the outfit of a British business editor, smart but at work, his hair a little unkempt. When he joined Murdoch he cut his hair, lost weight, wore blue suits, and started telling executives at News International they needed to be “corporate athletes.” Lewis had run a fast half-marathon when he was at Harvard in 2010—a fact that made its way to reporters—and captained his university’s soccer team. (He still plays the sport today, at 6:30 a.m. on Friday mornings in D.C.) His new executive edict was literal. “You had to wear a heart monitor and do all these exercises,” one of them remembers. “I put mine on my dog.”

This was Lewis 2.0. As a journalist he had been mocked in Private Eye, Britain’s satirical magazine, for his tendency to decamp to the pub and “drink among the troops,” as a colleague puts it. (“I haven’t been following what Thirsty’s up to,” said a source when we spoke, using his Private Eye nickname unprompted.) He was an archetypal British hack, able to drink and work from scratch the next day, often after a night of karaoke—he would invariably sing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” says another former co-worker. But that persona didn’t fit his path in the 2010s.

After Murdoch, Lewis evolved again, softening the severity of his look, and shedding suits for jeans and a blazer, stubble, and sneakers: a variant of the “tech bro” who greeted Johnson at Chequers in 2022. That was the man Jeff Bezos met and rescued from a dawning irrelevance.

The Post appointment vindicated all. The compromises of working for Murdoch had appeared to be the height of Lewis’s career. Then Bezos, a man 10 times as rich, picked him. Lewis had reached the peak he always sought. “He was a business editor at a young age,” says a former colleague, “and had a chance to hang around power. That was really what thrilled him: the height at which moguls work.” Editing a national paper—the summit of many journalists’ ambitions—was “always a stepping-stone to something bigger for him.”

Lewis’s prescriptions for the Post may never be realized. He is now rapidly losing altitude. You will find people who credit the way he ran the Telegraph (“he loves ideas, and he doesn’t mind from which corner ideas come,”) and the Journal (“he’s a good boss, he doesn’t micro-manage.”)

But others think less of his journalistic past. Sam Leith, a British journalist whose tenure as Telegraph literary editor ended under Lewis, remembers being asked by him to improve a review of a book written by someone Lewis knew. He refused. The review, which Lewis had requested, was dropped. “I don’t think,” Leith wrote on X, “editorial integrity is his strongest area of interest.”

In November, Lewis refused to address the allegations against him when questioned by the Post’s reporters: “I took a view very early on that I’m never going to talk about it.” It’s a convenient stance. But it will not survive contact with a court, and it may no longer be tenable at the paper he runs.

Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez.

Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez.

Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Prime Video

A contentious town hall held earlier this month as part of Lewis’ “Say It, Fix It, Build It” strategy has been followed by a so-called forgiveness tour. A source close to the sessions reports that Lewis has said his role as publisher is to create the environment for great journalism, and to encourage and support it. The source added that Lewis will never interfere in journalism and is very clear about the lines that should not be crossed.

But as he settles down into life in his new 5,000-square-foot Georgetown townhouse, close to the one from which Katharine Graham nurtured the Post through the Watergate years, pressure on Lewis is rising. Reporters at his own paper and others are now actively investigating his past.

Jeff Bezos wanted him to rethink the Post’s business model. He did not want him to break the brand.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast’s biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast’s unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.