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A decade-old scandal in the U.K. haunts CEO of 'Washington Post'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A scandal in the U.K. that goes back more than a decade is haunting the new publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post. Now questions are being raised about the way the Post is covering the accusations and the ability of CEO Will Lewis to lead the storied but financially troubled newspaper. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering all of this and joins us now. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so first tell us a little more about this scandal.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it goes back to that hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's tabloids in London. You know, hacking on an industrial scale and the famous phrase - emails, voicemails...

CHANG: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: ...Financial and health records or even occasionally break-ins - that led to criminal inquiries. Several people went to jail. There have been vast civil cases stretching for years. It's, you know, caused the ruination of people in political life and journalism and all kinds of fields. The Murdochs and their various corporate entities that are estimated to have to pay out more than $1.3 billion to settle a lot of these cases.

CHANG: Yeah, I totally remember this. And how does Will Lewis fit into all of this?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, even now, it's still playing out in civil court over there after years of litigation. Will Lewis is Brit. He's the former distinguished editor of the Daily Telegraph. He was brought on by Murdoch to help oversee his newspapers there in London in 2010, was quickly drafted to help oversee the company's response to this scandal, as it became clear it was going to be a huge criminal and civil legal question. Prince Harry is among the most famous litigants suing here. His lawyers allege that Lewis helped direct the deletion of millions of emails at a pivotal point, right after police said they needed the company to hold on to all these records. It must be pointed out, of course, Lewis denies all this.

CHANG: OK, so what happened in the courts yesterday?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the judge presiding over these cases knocked down an effort by the litigants to make Rupert Murdoch's actions central. But he gave the go-ahead for these plaintiffs to pursue claims that Will Lewis had lied to the police, that he had lied to the courts, he had lied to the public about his alleged involvement in destroying key evidence that could have been very damning about not just what individual figures within these newsrooms were doing, but what key executives were, what their involvement or knowledge was of this behavior that, in many cases, turned out to be criminal.

CHANG: And then how exactly has The Washington Post been covering Lewis' role in this entire controversy?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's first start with the coverage of the judge's ruling. It was a really strong story that the Post published first online yesterday, kept it on its home page and then showed up in the print edition today. I've got to said (ph) with that in mind, the Post really was pretty slow to the mark. The British press and we here at NPR did a number of initial stories that built upon evidence presented in court implicating Lewis in all this. Why does this matter? Well, it matters because earlier today, Semafor reported that an editor at the Post had directed colleagues not to promote today's coverage. So some concerns - would Will Lewis somehow be - you know, the specter of his involvement influence the Post's choices and coverage? I spoke to The Washington Post managing editor, Matea Gold, earlier today. She gave me a statement saying that basically the paper was pledging itself to ongoing, thorough and impartial reporting on their own boss.

CHANG: So interesting. Well, all of this, of course, comes as the Post, like many media organizations, is really struggling financially, right? Like, it's Lewis' job to revitalize the post. Do you think he can stay the course?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the key vote he has to have is the backing of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who owns the Post outright. There are no public shareholders. But the stakes are high. If you think about last year, the Post had lost 50% of its web readers from just 2020, laid off 13% of its workforce, lost 77 million bucks. He's promising all kinds of ways to experiment with AI, bring in new digital readers and subscribers, bring in more money from corporations. But he hasn't addressed this core question of integrity. And that's something presumably the readers of the Post and his own journalists inside his own newsroom need to hear more about if he's going to be atop this grand American institution.

CHANG: That is NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you so much, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA SONG, "LETTER TO UR EX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.