News International’s William Lewis, BBC’s Robert Peston, and the alleged act of theft which aimed to bring down Vince Cable

Rewind to December 2010, and you will recall the furore which greeted the revelation by the BBC’s Robert Peston that Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable had been secretly taped by undercover Telegraph hacks “declaring war” on Rupert Murdoch and his bid for BSkyB.

Vince was almost forced to resign, responsibility for handling the bid was handed over to a Murdoch-friendly Tory, and the Telegraph was embarrassed by the implication that they had censored the story in order to avoid assisting media rival News International.

A report in today’s New York Times sheds a new and extraordinary light on that sequence of events, and suggests that:

  • The Telegraph was not sitting on the Cable/BSkyB scoop, but was all set to run it as a follow-up to the paper’s initial story focusing on Vince’s forthright views on the Coalition;
  • Telegraph executives were so furious that their exclusive had been stolen by the BBC from under their noses that they hired security firm Kroll to investigate the source of the leak;
  • Kroll, according to the Telegraph, “concluded that the removal of the recording was, in all probability, an act of theft orchestrated by an external organization”;
  • The NYT reports carefully that ‘Kroll found circumstantial evidence that Mr. [William] Lewis and Mr. [Jim] Robinson were behind the episode, according to a summary of its work, though it stressed in its report that investigators had not found direct proof of the link.’
  • William Lewis (pictured right, with Robert Peston) is a former Telegraph editor who left the Group acrimoniously and subsequently joined News International as general manager; Mr Robinson was head of the technical support desk at the Telegraph, and was hired by News International the month after the Cable scoop on ‘unusually favourable terms’, according to Kroll: ‘The two celebrated the appointment over pints at a pub.’
  • William Lewis has known the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston for two decades, and was hired by him for the Financial Times in 1994. Their close friendship has already attracted significant controversy about whether Mr Peston’s insider track stories in recent weeks have been crafted to shift attention away from News International.

It’s unlikely the truth of the allegations against Mr Lewis and Mr Robinson will ever be known. The NYT notes that ‘Kroll found that before departing The Telegraph, Mr. Robinson reformatted his iPad, erasing all the data, and cut up the SIM card to his iPhone. “As such it has been impossible to conclude whether there had been incriminating evidence on the devices,” Kroll said.’

However, as the paper continues:

A senior executive at The Telegraph said that although the paper could not prove that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Robinson were involved, “they had all the motive to do this.”

“You can see how this would impress Will Lewis’s new masters,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The scoop was taken from us and given to Peston for maximum impact. And it was portrayed as if we had sat on a scoop. This would give Will Lewis big credibility in the eyes of his new bosses. And he had another motive — revenge against us. He wanted to make this organization look silly.”

The consequences of the BBC report were enormous. Mr. Cable, a Liberal Democrat, handed over the BSkyB review portfolio to Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative culture secretary, who proceeded to greenlight Mr. Murdoch’s acquisition. (The deal ultimately did not survive the hacking scandal.) The transfer was seen as a major coup by executives inside News International.

At the same time, editors at The Telegraph were questioned by others in the press about why they had not yet published the comments Mr. Cable had made against Mr. Murdoch.

The Telegraph shafted, and News International’s BSkyB takeover all but guaranteed: a double dose of luck for William Lewis. That’s the same Mr Lewis who is a member of News Corporation’s Management and Standards Committee by the way, and is currently leading the company’s clean-up operation. Reassuring, yes?

Lest we shed too many tears for the Telegraph for its stolen exclusive, by the way, it’s worth remembering that the paper’s sting operation managed the remarkable feat of drawing criticism even from as toothless a body as the Press Complaints Commission, which condemned its ‘fishing expedition’.

(The featured picture is from the Telegraph site itself.)

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  • It’s still rather doubtful whether the Telegraph would have published the story in quite the same way.

    It wasn’t in the interest of the Telegraph or its proprietors to give News International a more favourable person to decide the BSkB bid. And it remains quite odd that if they wanted to publish, they didn’t publish the most eye-catching bit of the scoop first…

    In any case, it always looked odd that in the end, it was the Telegraph and the BBC (both organisations which could only lose if Murdoch managed to take over BSkyB) who did Murdoch such a big favour – this version, with NI’s involvement, looks a lot more plausible….

  • Keith Browning 23rd Jul '11 - 8:12pm

    For those of a certain age these lyrics might be familiar and relevant to the current events.

    There are so many people still fighting for the Murdoch cause long after they disappear from the official payroll.

    ‘Last thing I remember, I was
    Running for the door
    I had to find the passage back
    To the place I was before
    ‘Relax,’ said the night man,
    ‘We are programmed to receive.
    You can check-out any time you like,
    But you can never leave!’

  • The New York Times recently had a story about Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre warning Rebekah Brooks to rein in attempts by Will Lewis to orchestrate a smear campaign against other newspapers. And to think, this bloke Lewis sits on News Corp’s Standards Committee.

  • The New York Times recently had a story about Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre warning Rebekah Brooks to rein in attempts by Will Lewis to orchestrate a smear campaign against other newspapers. And to think, this bloke Lewis sits on News Corp’s Standards Committee.

  • I don’t like the spin on this story because I want to know what politicians really think about issues rather than the party line or the spin doctors line- effectively I think they are fair game for the kind of sting that caught Vince. Newspapers are supposed to report the News rather than making it, but in News you have to get the story out there first. The Telegraph has developed a nasty habit of keeping political stories back and releasing them at a time to get most political advantage for the tea party right wing agenda they have these days – take Laws and his expenses for example. Whether you think they were doing that in this case, or whether they were just supressing this as it appeared to benefit a business rival, it doesn’t matter. Journalists move from one paper to another all the time, I guess if you want to avoid having stories pinched, don’t sit on them so long and when your journalists go to work for the opposition, change their network passwords…

  • “it remains quite odd that if they wanted to publish, they didn’t publish the most eye-catching bit of the scoop first”

    Not really. I suspected this was the case as soon there were allegations they sat on the story. If you publish a bigger scoop before a related smaller scoop there isn’t as much commercial benefit. If you can match the sizes of the revelations or even increase the sizes you keep people interested and buying papers.

  • coldcomfort 24th Jul '11 - 2:18pm

    Nothing much ever changes. I’m mindful of the following little ditty, attributed I believe to Humbert Wolfe 1885 -1940

    “You cannot hope to bribe or twist
    (thank God!) the British journalist.
    But, seeing what the man will do
    unbribed, there’s no occasion to”

  • Maria, I think you are wrong in thinking that the publication of Vince’s words automatically hrought in someone more favourable to News Corp. I felt it showed another example of Cameron’s poor people judgment in bringing in Hunt, bearing in mind his pro – Murdoch record. You would have thought that he would have strenuously sought out someone who could at least be reasonably portrayed as neutral on Murdoch. And I think you are wrong in thinking that publicising this would not be in the Telegraph’s business interest. It would remind again, particularly their right wing readership, that there is something potentially very controversial, not to say actually wrong (!) about the takeover. Vince has had fans across the political spectrum, and many would give him the benefit of the doubt here.

  • Incidentally, bearing in mind the clouds that have descended over Murdoch and News Corp, I am gobsmacked that Hunt has not been moved away from the position – the bid for the rest of BSkyB may be inactive now, but could easily be re-presented at a later date.

  • coldcomfort 25th Jul '11 - 5:12am

    This was published on my ‘grumpyoldliberal’ blog on 4th February this year.
    ‘Vince Cable is caught expressing his view that the Rupert Murdoch empire is more than big enough & he, Vince, is prepared to take it on. He is immediately stripped of the task of deciding if that Empire can be allowed to get bigger. The decision is given to Jeremy Hunt who had already expressed the view that allowing Murdoch to have the rest of BSkyB would not make a substantial difference to the plurality of the British Media. So disagree with Murdoch & be relieved of your duties. Agree and be given them. How impartial, especially when David Cameron & James Murdoch were apparently guests of Rebekah Brooks – Murdochs right hand woman – at Christmas.’
    Anyone with a half open mind knew that the Murdoch Empire had been too powerful for over twenty years ‘It was the Sun wot done it’. It was just that no Government had been prepared to do anything about it. All the Empire is REALLY sorry about is having been caught out & indeed the BSkyB bid will be back. One of News Corps biggest shareholders has said as much.

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