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

by Stephen Tall on July 23, 2011

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.)

One comment

@cllrdave4gornal I've heard the theory, wrote about it a year ago:

by Stephen Tall on June 14, 2012 at 6:32 am. Reply #

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