Post publisher’s role in hacking response comes into sharper focus

LONDON — In late January 2011, just days after Scotland Yard launched a major new investigation of illegal phone hacking by British journalists, a computer technician working inside Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate sent an email describing an unexpected halt in his assignment.

After days spent helping to delete emails by the millions from the company’s archives, the technician wrote to his bosses that “all decisions to continue” were now “frozen.” The technician was awaiting word on whether to halt the purge, press on, or reverse course and “restore all archives already deleted (!!)”

“Nobody here knows because this is coming from the top,” wrote the technician, Nigel Newell, according to a court record of his communication. Police had recently asked the company to preserve evidence.

Three days later, the internal halt was lifted. An executive relayed word to the IT team that lawyers had given the “green light” to proceed with the “email migration process.” In the ensuing days, another 15 million emails were wiped from the archives, according to an accounting from Murdoch’s lawyers in a 2017 civil case.

That message to proceed was sent by William Lewis, who was then an executive at Murdoch’s U.K. company, and who last year was named CEO and publisher of The Washington Post.

The Feb. 3 email is among the indications that Lewis played a key role in events at the heart of a fierce legal dispute: whether News International intentionally deleted years of emails — ultimately some 30 million, of which 9 million were never recovered — to thwart an active police investigation.

Victims of phone hacking claim that those deletions were part of an effort to cover up executives’ awareness that Murdoch journalists had illegally obtained voicemails of thousands of people, including politicians, royals and even a murdered teenager. Murdoch’s company has said in court filings the company’s emails conformed with a data-retention policy and were deleted for “commercial, IT and practical reasons” and not as part of a plan to conceal evidence. The company has spent a reported $1.5 billion to settle more than a thousand phone-hacking claims, with settlements continuing into this year.

Lewis has denied wrongdoing while declining to answer detailed questions about his actions. He told The Post: “I know I did nothing wrong, and these allegations are untrue.” He has previously called his assignment at the time “crisis management” and said he worked to “preserve journalistic integrity.”

A Washington Post review of documents and interviews with key players found that News International’s actions in response to the hacking scandal left some police investigators and IT workers concerned that the company was obstructing the investigation. Some now say their concerns have only grown with time.

While the broad outlines of the hacking scandal and Lewis’s management of the crisis were previously known, details about his involvement in how the company handled emails amid the criminal investigation have recently come into public view through a long-running civil case. In recent weeks, questions about Lewis’s actions deepened after reports he sought to discourage The Post from covering developments in the civil case, an allegation he has denied.

Lewis himself is not the direct target of any legal action. But a British judge recently cleared the way for Prince Harry and others to air allegations in a trial scheduled for January that Lewis helped conceal evidence related to phone hacking. News Group Newspapers, a Murdoch entity, is the defendant in the case.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, himself a victim of alleged hacking, last month urged London’s Metropolitan Police Service — widely known as Scotland Yard — to reopen its criminal investigation, citing revelations from the court case.

This week, in a statement to The Post, Brown for the first time called on police specifically to investigate Lewis’s conduct and that of his former boss, longtime Murdoch executive Rebekah Brooks.

“Rebekah Brooks and William Lewis were involved in the destruction of millions of emails vital to the criminal investigation into phone hacking,” said the former Labour leader, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2010. Murdoch executives “who claimed they were doing the cleanup may have instead been engaged in a coverup.”

A spokeswoman for Murdoch’s U.K. publishing company, now called News UK, said Brown was “relying on a one-sided and incomplete picture of the evidence” and accused him of harboring “enmity” toward the company.

As the decade-old controversy has been thrust back into the news, some people who were involved in the events — which led to a wave of resignations and jail terms for several journalists including a former top editor — are revisiting misgivings they felt at the time.

An IT worker who participated in meetings with Lewis said he “came to feel the deletions were driven by an effort to hide information.” The worker said his assessment was “based on what we were asked to do, the way it was done and everything that was going on in the bigger picture at the time,” a reference to deletion instructions that he said went against standard protocols and came amid the Scotland Yard probe. Like some others interviewed for this report, the worker spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing litigation.

The News UK spokeswoman said the company “strenuously denies that there was any plan to delete emails in order to conceal evidence.” The spokeswoman said critics of the Murdoch company, including police officials, fail to understand these events in part because the company has yet to present its side in court.

The spokeswoman also called the allegations historical. She noted that Brooks was acquitted in a 2014 trial on charges of conspiracy related to phone hacking, a case that dealt in part with email deletions, and pointed to a 2015 statement issued by Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service after a years-long investigation saying it had seen “no evidence to suggest that email deletion was undertaken in order to pervert the court of justice.”

Some police officials involved in the investigation, however, still harbor doubts.

“There are legitimate reasons for companies to delete emails,” Sue Akers, who led the Scotland Yard investigation of the phone-hacking scandal, said in an interview with The Post. When a company presses forward with deleting files “literally at the beginning of our investigation,” she said, “a more cynical view might be that they wanted to clear some stuff that might not be very helpful.”

Asked how much Post leadership knew about Lewis’s role in the phone-hacking fallout when he was hired last year, Patty Stonesifer, the former interim publisher and a longtime adviser to Post owner Jeff Bezos, said she and a search firm “completed a detailed review of Will’s career, background and references.” She added, “I can assure you of our deep consideration and complete alignment on Will’s leadership.”

Lewis, an accomplished reporter and editor, arrived as general manager of Murdoch’s U.K. publishing operation in September 2010, during a moment of crisis for the company. That same month, British actress Sienna Miller took a preliminary step to sue the conglomerate for the actions of its best-selling tabloid, News of the World, initiating a lawsuit that would expose evidence incriminating a high-level editor in hacking activity. The legal threat came after the sentencing of one of the tabloid’s reporters for phone hacking and news articles that suggested the practice had continued.

The company soon began its first large wave of email deletions, removing more than 4 million messages from its archive, according to Murdoch lawyers. The company has said the deletions were not made in response to Miller’s legal claim.

After years of resisting pressure to open a broad investigation, Scotland Yard sent a letter to News International in the early days of 2011 saying authorities would no longer accept the company’s claims that hacking was the work of rogue reporters. Detectives sought “any material which could be potential evidence of phone hacking” by any staff member, police wrote, according to court records.

That weekend, Brooks, then the News International chief executive, and members of the company’s board were in contact with the company’s chief information officer, Paul Cheesbrough, about a preexisting plan to “migrate” emails.

To complete this work, News International called in Essential Computing, an IT company based near Bristol, England. The contractors were told their task was to migrate News International from an outdated system to Gmail, according to interviews and a statement given to police.

But when they arrived on Jan. 11, the orders changed, according to statements and previously unreported notes taken by someone present. Rather than overseeing a customary systemwide switch, Newell, the lead technician, was handed a piece of paper with a list of “top up” executives, these documents say. Newell was told to start by making a secure copy of those individuals’ email records to be placed on a laptop, according to a statement he would later provide to police.

More slips of paper followed, including one titled “special people.”

Then came instructions that Newell viewed as so unusual — and concerning — that he refused to carry them out, according to his statement. Told to delete any data associated with those lists from the company’s archives, he balked and insisted that one of Murdoch’s own IT managers be the one to hit the “delete” button, an episode first reported by British journalist Nick Davies in Prospect magazine.

In part, he had technical concerns that the secure copy on the laptop might not be complete because he said the company had bypassed usual tests and reliability measures, according to his statement to police and people involved in the operation. These people said he and others also expressed concerns about the legality of their task as police were investigating.

In late January, as the phone-hacking scandal gained greater attention in the British press, Essential Computing dispatched a more senior executive to News International to oversee the email operation. At this stage, Essential “was quite concerned about the legal implications” of the job it had been hired to do, a company official said in an interview. The manager sent to London, David Kellett, was put in an isolated area of the company’s offices and instructed “not to tell anyone what I was doing,” according to a witness statement Kellett gave to police.

Newell and Kellett declined to comment on the previously unreported notes and the witness statements.

The News UK spokeswoman said there was nothing untoward about the way the company chose to store archived messages or the instructions given to computer specialists. The company has said in court that the laptop was used to retain messages needed to fulfill legal obligations. The handling of the laptop and its contents became a focus of police, according to court documents, and has been a point of contention in lawsuits.

Brooks did not respond to inquiries, but the News UK spokeswoman denied that Brooks and others devised a plan to conceal evidence. The spokeswoman said Murdoch’s U.K. publishing company had a “strained” relationship with Essential, which she said installed the troubled email archive system.

On Jan. 12, with a fresh round of deletions about to begin, Lewis issued criteria for whose messages should be saved, according to excerpts of the guidance contained in court files. The full document has not been publicly released.

Police came to see the company’s approach in this time period as part of an effort to “hang out to dry” certain journalists while “steering the investigation away from other journalists and editors,” Barney Ratcliffe, a senior Scotland Yard investigator, said in a 2015 witness statement obtained by The Post and reported this week by the New York Times. The statement, which does not mention Lewis, was filed in a separate case.

The News UK spokeswoman denied that characterization and said the company was working to preserve email records that were important for the investigation and ongoing litigation.

On. Jan. 26, News International turned over three emails from 2007 to police considered possible evidence linking phone hacking to a senior editor, according to court records and interviews. Scotland Yard that day opened a broad new investigation code-named Operation Weeting, with Akers in charge. Lewis sent the “green light” message on Feb. 3.

Six days later, a News International IT manager wrote to a supervisor at Essential asking for an update on the “deletions being done yesterday,” according to filings and people familiar with the discussions.

Later that day, a group of News International executives that did not include Lewis met again with Scotland Yard investigators. The two sides disagreed about how much evidence the company would turn over, according to Ratcliffe’s statement.

To protect journalistic integrity and legitimate communications with sources, police had refrained from seizing evidence outright, instead relying on an arrangement in which the company would voluntarily provide material requested by investigators.

Police were “very keen to secure as much information as possible,” Ratcliffe said in his sworn statement. Murdoch executives, he said, indicated that they had expected their cooperation to be limited to a narrow set of emails involving a small number of News of the World employees.

In fact, the executives said during the meeting, they had little more to share, telling police there was “no data” in its email archives prior to January 2008, as another detective recalled in a statement cited by plaintiffs. What the company did not reveal, according to the Ratcliffe statement and other people familiar with the timing, was that technical work associated with deletions had continued into the previous evening.

The News UK spokeswoman said that company leaders were transparent at the Feb. 9 meeting, divulging that many emails no longer resided on archives because of deletions carried out for a necessary migration.

One police officer involved in the investigation said, however, “There is a big difference between disclosing some deletions and mass deletions, and the fact that they continued” after the start of the police investigation.

‘Jaw-dropping moment’

As tensions worsened in 2011 between News International executives and investigators, the company turned to Lewis to improve the relationship with police.

That summer, the company announced a newly created Management and Standards Committee to take over interactions with police and appointed to key positions Lewis and a public relations expert he had known since childhood, Simon Greenberg. Greenberg died in 2021.

Lewis and Greenberg “came as a pair and they said, ‘We’re here now. Cut the lawyers out and deal with us,’” said a former senior Scotland Yard official. The two made a positive impression, in contrast to the contentious approach of the Murdoch attorneys.

Lewis also handled encounters with some victims of phone hacking. David Blunkett, home secretary in the Labour government in the early 2000s, said Lewis was his main interlocutor when the company offered him an out-of-court settlement.

Around that time, Blunkett recalled, “He came to me and said, ‘Can we settle?’” Blunkett agreed, he said, out of a desire to avoid opening his life to the kind of scrutiny associated with a high-profile lawsuit of the sort Prince Harry and others are now pursuing. Of his interactions with Lewis, Blunkett said, “We had a respectful, professional interchange.”

In those same months, court records show, investigators began to piece together just how many of the company’s emails had been deleted, many after the start of the investigation. On June 29, Lewis and Cheesbrough, the chief information officer, attended a meeting that included Kellett, the senior manager with Essential Computing, and Ratcliffe, the police detective.

The session took a dramatic turn when police asked the IT experts on hand whether there was any way that deleted files could be recovered, according to court records and interviews with people present.

Kellett then stunned those gathered by disclosing that in January his team had made a backup copy of the News International email archive, according to Ratcliffe’s sworn statement. The backup didn’t contain all the email data, said a person familiar with its contents, but preserved metadata information including dates and the names of senders and recipients.

“Cheesbrough appeared to be totally shocked by this development,” Ratcliffe wrote. He added that it was a “jaw-dropping moment for most of the attendees because we had previously believed” that emails more than six months old “had been expunged forever.”

The revelation was made more surprising, he wrote, because “it had not been the company that had volunteered the information.”

The News UK spokeswoman said executives were surprised because the company had asked a separate contractor to create a backup before deletions in 2011, but that measure failed. She said the email system was unstable and in need of upgrades before Cheesbrough arrived.

Using the metadata map that Kellett produced, about 21 million emails were ultimately recovered from a trove of about 30 million removed from the company’s archive, according to court records.

Lewis faced having to explain why the company had purged so much data from its email archive after the launch of the Operation Weeting probe without informing investigators.

A meeting scheduled for July 8, 2011, loomed as a showdown with police over this revelation.

For the first time, Lewis outlined an alleged internal threat that company executives said affected how emails had been handled, according to meeting participants and police notes.

Lewis and Cheesbrough said the company had been told that a former employee had accessed emails involving Brooks — who had served as editor of the News of the World tabloid in the midst of its phone-hacking era — and funneled that information to Brown, the former British prime minister, as well as Tom Watson, a close Brown ally who was then a member of Parliament and now sits in the House of Lords.

“This added to our anxieties,” Lewis said, according to police notes. Cheesbrough said it “contributed to our need to secure data away from the old archive.”

According to the plaintiffs’ court filings, Cheesbrough had first laid out the alleged threat in a Jan. 22 email to Brooks and Lewis, her direct report at the time. A contractor was soon asked to help them look for the alleged leaker, according to email excerpts and people familiar with the events.

Months later, when Lewis and Cheesbrough told police of the alleged threat, they said they had found no proof the plot existed. “We have our suspicions but we don’t have any evidence,” Lewis said, according to police meeting minutes. He also expressed remorse for not having revealed it earlier, saying, as first reported by the New York Times, “We apologize for hiding this piece of work from you.”

In a statement provided to The Post, Watson, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company, said he believes it “falsely scapegoated me and the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to create an entirely untrue narrative … to justify its mass deletion of millions of emails.”

The News UK spokeswoman called Watson’s characterization “unfounded and wrong” and said the company has disputed it in court. “The security threat did not provide a rationale for the deletions, but it did affect the approach that NI took to extracting and preserving materials,” she wrote.

Two days after the tense meeting, News of the World abruptly published its last edition. “Thank you & goodbye,” the cover read.

Lewis continued to serve on the Management and Standards Committee for another year, before ascending to the upper ranks of the Murdoch company. In 2014, he was named CEO of Dow Jones and Company and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, a position he held until 2020.

Last fall, when he was named CEO and publisher of The Post, Lewis said he would have no further comment on the phone-hacking fallout.

“I took a view very early on that I’m never going to talk about it,” he told a Post reporter last year. “And it’s either right or wrong that I’ve done that.”

Davis reported from Washington. Cate Brown, Alice Crites and Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.

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