April 25 (Bloomberg) -- As Rupert Murdoch testifies this week before a judge-led inquiry into media ethics, strict security is in place to protect him from agitators like the man who shoved a foam pie in his face when he made a similar appearance before Parliament.
The measures at the Royal Courts of Justice won’t protect the 81-year-old News Corp. chief executive officer from a more dangerous adversary, a Manchester lawyer who was instrumental in putting the company’s hacking scandal in the public eye.
The lawyer, Mark Lewis, took his usual perch in the gallery at the so-called Leveson inquiry into media ethics when Murdoch testified in London today, just as he shadowed James Murdoch when he appeared yesterday. Lewis is observing the Murdochs’ comments as he prepares to file phone-hacking lawsuits against News Corp.’s London papers in U.S. courts, expanding the measures he has taken so far in the U.K.
Rupert Murdoch told the Leveson inquiry under oath today that U.K. media abuses went beyond voice-mail interceptions by journalists at the U.K. unit of News Corp. In a witness statement, he said News Corp. has turned over evidence of “suspected illegality” to the U.S. Justice Department and London police.
Though just one observer of the tribunal led by Judge Brian Leveson, Lewis has been transformed by events of the past three years from a lawyer acting on behalf of phone-hacking victims into a key player in the drama. Likely victims number 1,174, another lawyer suing News Corp. told a judge April 20.
‘A Bit Surreal’
“It’s been a strange experience, a bit surreal,” Lewis said in one of a series of interviews in New York last week as he laid the groundwork for U.S. lawsuits. “I was a face in the crowd, and now I’ve become a lead character.”
While Lewis is largely unknown in the U.S., his successful battles against News Corp.’s London tabloids have won him fame in Britain, where he appears frequently on television, opining on the latest twists and turns in the phone-hacking scandal that has particularly damaged the career of James Murdoch, his father’s one-time heir apparent.
Lewis’s success has also landed him on “hot” lists compiled by various British publications, from The Lawyer’s “Top 100” to the London Evening Standard’s “1,000 most interesting people.”
Jude Law Comparison
The Guardian compared him favorably to movie star and phone-hacking victim Jude Law, a juxtaposition that Lewis, 47, said he had trouble explaining to the oldest of his four daughters.
Being compared to any movie star is unusual for Lewis, who stands 6 feet 3 inches and shuffles with a pronounced limp and a dangling right hand, a consequence of a 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
The London lawyer was in New York last week to meet with civil rights lawyers Norman Siegel and Steven Hyman to discuss strategy for filing phone-hacking cases in the U.S.
At an April 19 press conference in Manhattan, he and his partners declined to say when they would file against News Corp. Lewis did say two Europeans and one American had claimed their voice-mail had been hacked on U.S. soil between 2001 and 2006. Lewis said a fourth alleged victim had come forward.
With no litigation news announced, the visit was still a public relations success, generating articles in the New York Times and several London papers. The BBC and Sky News sent correspondents to the press conference, as did National Public Radio, the Australian Financial Review and Bloomberg News, among other media outlets.
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“I wouldn’t have expected my going to New York to be big news on either side of the Atlantic,” Lewis said.
As for prospective clients, the media coverage helped.
“People have been contacting me who have been aware of things,” he said.
It wasn’t long ago that the media attention Lewis received was scornful dismissal by the head of the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission in response to his claims of widespread phone hacking at Murdoch’s papers.
In June 2008, as a partner at the George Davies firm in Manchester, Lewis negotiated a $1 million settlement on behalf of Gordon Taylor, head of the U.K.’s professional soccer players union. He discovered evidence that Taylor’s voice mail had been hacked by representatives of News of the World, a Murdoch tabloid closed in response to the scandal.
James Murdoch, then CEO of News Corp.’s U.K. unit, signed off on the settlement. Both sides had agreed to keep terms of the accord confidential. One year later, details of the settlement leaked out in a story published in the Guardian. The U.K. newspaper also revealed the existence of an internal e-mail indicating that a number of News of the World reporters had been engaged in phone hacking. Until that point, the tabloid had maintained that the illegal practice was confined to one rogue reporter who’d been fired. The U.K. body that regulates solicitors is investigating a complaint by Taylor that Lewis was the source of the leak, which Lewis denies.
Instead of enhancing Lewis’s position at George Davies, the Guardian story undermined his career. By his own admission, Lewis didn’t fit in well with the collegial atmosphere at the firm. When he started doing media interviews about the Gordon Taylor settlement and generating inquiries from other alleged phone-hacking victims, his partners urged him not to take on those clients.
Lewis refused and was voted out, losing a partnership that had earned him an estimated 300,000 pounds ($484,000) a year before taxes. It was the second major blow Lewis suffered that year. The previous January, his 18-year marriage had come apart, forcing him to vacate the six-bedroom home he had shared with his wife and daughters.
In September 2009, he accepted a position at another Manchester law firm. His earnings dwindled. He told the Leveson Inquiry last year that his decision to keep handling phone-hacking cases resulted in a 97 percent pay cut.
Lewis descended into a midlife crisis. His hairdresser did him over with a punk cut and dyed his hair peroxide blonde. Newly single, he took to wearing skinny jeans, sporting an earring, donning punk-style T-shirts and Dr. Martens shoes, and tooling around town in a convertible.
To keep ahead of his bills, he began selling some of the expensive toys -- classic cars -- he’d collected during his career at George Davies. One buyer, Michael Taylor, bought Lewis’s 1929 Austin 7 and a 1919 Model T. Upon learning that Lewis was a lawyer, Taylor referred him to his brother Daniel Taylor, who ran a London law firm, Taylor Hampton Solicitors.
By the time he joined Taylor Hampton in May 2010, Lewis had reverted to business suits and his natural hair color.
He also had drawn the ire of the legal team representing News of the World, who had dispatched a private investigator to pry into his personal life, as well as that of Charlotte Harris, another George Davies solicitor who’d left the firm to take on more phone-hacking cases.
In January 2011, the London Metropolitan Police, also known as Scotland Yard, opened an investigation into phone-hacking at News of the World. The investigation, as well as an increasing number of lawsuits against the paper by celebrities including actress Sienna Miller, led to TV news appearances by Lewis as a phone-hacking expert.
In April 2011, the police informed Bob and Sally Dowler, whose daughter had been abducted and murdered almost a decade earlier, that representatives of News of the World had hacked into their daughter’s voice-mail account after her 2002 disappearance, listening to messages that had been left for her.
The Dowlers, who’d seen Lewis on TV, retained him as their solicitor. Weeks after the Dowlers hired Lewis, the Guardian broke the news that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked on behalf of Murdoch’s tabloid.
The revelation shocked a public that had grown accustomed to reading savory bits of gossip involving movie stars and other celebrities.
For Murdoch, the Dowler revelations were damaging. News Corp. was within days of winning regulatory approval to acquire the 61 percent of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc that it didn’t own. Facing mounting opposition in Parliament after the Dowler news, News Corp. withdrew its bid for BSkyB.
Murdoch himself flew to London to take control of the matter. A private meeting was arranged between Murdoch and the Dowler family, at the One Aldwych hotel. With Lewis looking on, Murdoch apologized to the Dowler family.
When Murdoch emerged from the meeting, he was besieged by a scrum of reporters hollering questions at him and protesters yelping condemnations. Momentarily stunned by the crush, Murdoch retreated into the hotel, emerging moments later to read a brief statement. He then darted back into the hotel and left through a different exit.
With the stage to himself, Lewis read his own statement to the media in front of the hotel.
Two months later, News Corp. agreed to pay 3 million pounds to settle the matter, with two-thirds of the sum going to the Dowler family and one-third to a charity of their choosing. The settlement and attendant publicity established Lewis as the pre-eminent solicitor for phone-hacking victims.
“He’s gone from being someone who wasn’t on the radar screen to being the go-to person for phone-hacking cases,” said Niri Shan, the head of media law at Taylor Wessing LLP in London.
“When he first took these cases on, he was taking a real risk, investing his time and money, and taking on a powerful company,” Shan said. He praised Lewis’s work on behalf of the Dowlers, describing the settlement as “excellent” for the bereaved family.
Lewis is basking in his new-found fame as the lawyer at the center of the phone-hacking saga. His earnings, he said, still have a ways to go to make up for the income he lost from mid-2009 through mid-2011. Lewis said he’s on his way back.
Last fall, News Corp.’s U.K. unit admitted it had put Lewis under surveillance. In November, police met with Lewis and showed him evidence of the monitoring, including video footage of Lewis’s ex-wife and his then-14-year-old daughter.
Lewis was outraged by the intrusion and demanded an apology from Derek Webb, the investigator who followed his family. Lewis said his firm is preparing to sue News International for invasion of his privacy.
Lewis’s return to London from New York this month concluded a month-long, around-the-world trip that featured speaking engagements and media appearances in Australia, the birthplace of Murdoch’s media empire.
As part of his non-stop assault on News Corp., Lewis peppers such appearances with one-liners and put-downs aimed at the company in general and James Murdoch in particular.
One quip involved a 2008 e-mail sent to James Murdoch just before the Gordon Taylor settlement was struck by Lewis. In it, a subordinate passed along a warning that the hacking problems at News of the World were extensive. The e-mail contradicted testimony by Murdoch, who said his subordinates never informed him of the depth of the problems at the paper.
Faced with the message, Murdoch wrote Parliament in December, insisting he’d never read the entire e-mail. He said he’d received it on his BlackBerry on a Saturday afternoon.
At the time, Lewis quipped, “I believe in Father Christmas, I believe in the tooth-fairy, and I believe James Murdoch.” His newest zinger on the matter is: “You can say what you like about James Murdoch, as long as you send it to his BlackBerry on a Saturday afternoon.”
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