Incoming Washington Post editor tied to self-described ‘thief’ who claimed role in his reporting

LONDON - The alleged offense was trying to steal a soon-to-be-released copy of former prime minister Tony Blair’s memoir.

The suspect arrested by London police in 2010 was John Ford, a once-aspiring actor who has since admitted to an extensive career using deception and illegal means to obtain confidential information for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper. Facing potential prosecution, Ford called a journalist he said he had collaborated with repeatedly - and trusted to come to his rescue.

That journalist, according to draft book chapters Ford later wrote recounting his ordeal, was Robert Winnett, a Sunday Times veteran who is set to become editor of The Washington Post later this year.

Winnett moved quickly to connect Ford with a lawyer, discussed obtaining an untraceable phone for future communications and reassured Ford that the “remarkable omerta” of British journalism would ensure his clandestine efforts would never come to light, according to draft chapters Ford wrote in 2017 and 2018 that were shared with The Post.

Winnett, currently a deputy editor of the Telegraph, did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Ford, who previously declined to be interviewed, did not respond to questions about the draft book chapters.

Winnett is now poised to take over the top editorial position in The Post’s core newsroom, scheduled to start after the November U.S. presidential election. He was appointed by Post CEO and Publisher William Lewis, who has mentored Winnett and worked with him at two British papers. Lewis is also mentioned in Ford’s draft chapters.

The drafts are part of a collection of previously unreported materials representing Ford’s recollections of his activities and associations with Winnett, some of which The Post was able to match with published stories and other public documents. The prospective book project never came to fruition.


The claims raise questions about Winnett’s journalistic record months before he is to assume a top position at The Post. His appointment has increased focus on the different ways journalism is practiced in the United States and Britain.

In one passage, Ford describes working with Winnett on an array of stories about consumer and business affairs. The collaboration, in his account, was part of a broader arrangement with the Sunday Times in which Ford delivered confidential details about Britain’s rich and powerful by using dishonest means, including changing their bank passwords and adopting false personas in calls to government agencies. A Sunday Times editor later acknowledged some of these practices but said they were deployed to serve the public interest.

Winnett, who went on to become a respected business reporter and editor with a record of scoops, has not publicly spoken about relying on or interacting with Ford, a trained actor with a talent for accents.

But a review by The Post of Winnett’s reporting at the Sunday Times, as well as Ford’s unpublished book chapters and other documents that have since been made public, reveals apparent overlap between Winnett’s stories and individuals or entities that Ford said he was commissioned to target. They include pieces on the fate of the Leeds United Football Club, the finances of former prime minister Blair and the efforts by some of Britain’s wealthiest elites to buy a new vehicle from Mercedes-Benz that cost 250,000 pounds.

At The Post and other major American news organizations, the use of deceptive tactics in pursuit of news stories violates core ethics policies. In Britain, “blagging” - using misrepresentation to dupe others into revealing confidential information - has been a known feature of a certain brand of tabloid journalism, especially before a public reckoning over press ethics began in 2011. Blagging has been less frequently documented in the broadsheet titles where Winnett and Lewis built their careers.

Blagging is illegal under the United Kingdom’s 1998 Data Protection Act, but a defense is available if the acts can be shown to serve the public interest, legal experts said.

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Winnett was tapped to lead The Post’s newsroom as part of a Lewis shake-up that led to the abrupt departure this month of Sally Buzbee, the first woman to serve as The Post’s executive editor.

Addressing the Post newsroom this month, Lewis touted Winnett as a “world class” journalist. “He’s a brilliant investigative journalist,” Lewis said. “And he will restore an even greater degree of investigative rigor to our organization.”

Lewis’s own journalistic record also has come under scrutiny.

The New York Times on Saturday reported that Lewis, as an editor at the Sunday Times in 2004, had assigned a reporter to write a story about a prominent businessman that the reporter believed was based on hacked phone records. The Post has reviewed unpublished writing by Ford in which he claims to have changed the password on the bank account of that businessman, Stuart Rose, so as to gain unauthorized access to Rose’s records.

Lewis co-wrote a story for the Sunday Times in February 2004 about internal legal wrangling at the Manchester United Football Club, the same month that an invoice — published by an online news site in 2018 — shows Ford was paid for a story about “MANCHESTER.” A former Sunday Times journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said Lewis’s co-author was a junior sports reporter at the time and did not obtain the revelations at the heart of the story.

Lewis declined to comment through a Post spokesperson in response to a list of detailed questions, including about the origins of the information for the 2004 stories.

In recent weeks, Lewis has faced accusations of seeking to suppress stories about a long-running civil court battle in London concerning his time as a top executive in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

In January 2011, London police asked Murdoch’s company to turn over evidence of phone hacking by one of its papers, and last month, a judge cleared the way for plaintiffs to air claims that Lewis and others were involved in plans to subsequently delete millions of emails allegedly related to the hacking. Lewis has denied wrongdoing and is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. He has also denied trying to quash stories on the topic.

Ford’s draft chapters from 2017 and 2018, shared at the time with a cohort of journalists and others, reflect his efforts to blow the whistle on hacking and other illicit newsgathering methods.

Those efforts prompted a 2018 Guardian profile, in which Ford said, “I was nothing more than a common thief.” He counted private investigators among his clients and said he performed most of his work for the Sunday Times, never taking on a formal role or even entering its office, but estimating that he was paid 40,000 pounds a year for his exploits. He said in that profile that he pursued leading politicians, including Blair and another former prime minister, Gordon Brown; celebrities such as Paul McCartney; and a former head of MI6, the secretive foreign intelligence service.


Ford wrote in his draft chapters that he came to know Winnett as a young reporter at the Sunday Times, where Winnett began writing as a student in 1995.

Lewis became business editor of the Sunday Times in 2002. He remained there until 2005, when he became city editor of the Telegraph, a center-right paper identified with Britain’s Conservative Party. He quickly climbed the ranks of that outlet.

Winnett joined Lewis at the Telegraph in 2007, and two years later they worked closely together on an investigation into phony expenses by members of Parliament that rocked the political establishment and forced a wave of resignations.

The stories that the Telegraph published in 2009 arose from data that the paper had acquired as part of a transaction in which they paid about 150,000 pounds to a private investigator seeking to sell the material on behalf of another source, according to an account Lewis later provided as part of a public inquiry into media practices. Lewis has described the Telegraph’s work as a high-water mark for the British press, “one of the most important bits of journalism, if not the most important bit of journalism, in the postwar period.”

Within a year, the British industry’s practices were engulfed in an expanding scandal, fueled by revelations that News of the World, a best-selling tabloid in Murdoch’s media empire, had engaged in widespread hacking of the phones of politicians, celebrities and even victims of violent crimes in the pursuit of salacious stories.

Lewis left the Telegraph in 2010 to join the Murdoch-controlled News International as a senior executive. Within months, he would be charged with helping to manage the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal, a position that involved overseeing the provision of evidence to a Metropolitan Police investigation that swelled to include hundreds of officers.

It was during this period that Ford made his desperate call to Winnett - a decision Ford briefly recounted in a 2018 piece he published in Byline Investigates, a journalism website edited by Graham Johnson, a former tabloid reporter turned whistleblower on journalism ethics. The same year, Byline Investigates published invoices, on its website and in a YouTube video, showing numerous payments to Ford from the Sunday Times parent company, News International.

A line item on one of the invoices includes only the description “LEEDS” for a payment related to a story published in September 2004. That month, Winnett and another reporter broke the news that an Iraqi businessman worth 1.3 billion pounds was preparing a bid to take over Leeds United.


The story quoted what it described as an unnamed friend of the businessman and divulged plans to move the club and redevelop the area surrounding its stadium. Other Sunday Times stories published that month that make reference to Leeds are all straightforward sports or politics write-ups and human-interest pieces about property or interior design.

In 2002, Winnett and two co-authors wrote about a blind trust in which Blair, the prime minister at the time, had parked profits from the sale of his family’s home. It followed a line of reporting about blind trusts connected to officials in Blair’s Labour Party that, in one of his unpublished drafts, Ford claims credit for having helped launch for the Sunday Times five years earlier. Ford did so, he wrote, by altering his voice as part of a ruse to obtain information from the bank Barclays.

The 2002 article co-written by Winnett laid out the political connections of one of the fund’s two trustees, describing a set of real estate transactions for which the fund nearly failed to gain financing until a third party informed the bank that the loan was for Blair’s trust. The article did not reveal how the paper had learned about the private exchanges, saying only that the Sunday Times “has established” the information.

To Ford, one story in particular stood out. He told the Guardian in the 2018 profile that he had used a fake German accent in June 2002 to dupe a Mercedes-Benz employee into disclosing a list of buyers for the new Maybach supercar on a secret assignment for the Sunday Times newsroom. He said he regretted the move because the employee later lost his job.

Winnett reported in June 2002 that 60 British-based millionaires had placed orders for the new Maybach model. “Sources say,” Winnett wrote, that buyers had put down deposits of 50,000 pounds for a modern version of what had once been “the Nazis’ favourite limousine.” The New York Times first linked Ford’s public comments to the Winnett story.

Co-authors of these stories either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.

Mark Lewis, a media lawyer who has brought high-profile phone-hacking claims, said revealing who had ordered high-end cars was plainly unjustified by public interest, the exemption carved out for blagging under U.K. law. “It seems like the perfect example of something that interests the public but has no public interest,” he said.

A Sunday Times spokesperson declined to address specific stories but pointed to a past statement saying the paper “has employed many contributors and researchers to work on stories, or parts of stories” but “strongly rejects the accusation that it has in the past retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally.”

Ford divulged in his 2018 piece for Byline Investigates that he had sought Blair’s manuscript at the behest of the Sunday Times. After his arrest, however, he contacted Winnett, by then at the Telegraph, because Winnett “remained in close contact with his friend Will Lewis, one of the leaders of News International’s Management and Standards Committee (the unit Murdoch set up to clean house after phone hacking).”

After Ford’s arrest, on allegations of fraud by false representation, Winnett recommended a lawyer, Ford recalled in the draft book chapters. Winnett urged calm, telling him, “they’ll sort you out.”

They met for Chinese food, according to the draft chapters. Among others who attended the meal, according to Ford’s drafts, was a longtime Winnett colleague: Claire Newell, the Sunday Times journalist who, in Ford’s telling, had asked him to obtain the Blair manuscript.

Newell had been arrested in 2004 under suspicion that she had passed government papers to the Sunday Times while working as a temporary secretary in the Cabinet Office, the Guardian reported at the time. Winnett had helped arrange for Newell to pass confidential leaks to the paper, according to an account in a book by journalist Nick Davies, Flat Earth News.


Newell was questioned in 2004 but not charged. She then returned to the Sunday Times, where she had written several stories in 2003, and subsequently joined Winnett at the Telegraph, where she serves as investigations editor. She did not respond to a request for comment.

When Ford shared concerns about the reverberations of his own arrest, he recalled in one draft chapter, Winnett described the code of silence prevailing inside the Telegraph, where many reporters and editors had previously worked at the Sunday Times. That shared experience, according to Ford’s drafts, meant no one would blow the whistle on the tactics that had landed him in jail.

“It was clear that most had no idea of the specifics of my incident but people knew something had happened,” he wrote in the drafts. “It is pretty incredible that a group of journalists could collectively cover up this story.”

Ford did not remain invisible for long, becoming a flash point in a vexed public debate over press ethics in Britain.

John Witherow, a former longtime editor of the Sunday Times, acknowledged in public testimony and statements in 2011 and 2012 that the paper had repeatedly employed Ford and two private investigators to impersonate public officials, sports regulators and others to obtain stories it deemed in the public interest. Witherow’s admissions came in response to a year-long government investigation known as the Leveson Inquiry that sprung from revelations of phone hacking by the Murdoch-controlled News of the World tabloid.

In the fallout from those revelations, Witherow sought to crack down on the use of subterfuge in reporting, prohibiting pseudonyms and alter egos, according to the Guardian.


Still, he made a public-interest case for blagging under questioning by members of Parliament in 2012. He gave an example of a reporter posing as a businessman to see if a lawmaker would take money to ask questions in a government hearing. The reporting led to the suspension of two lawmakers, he noted.

Witherow said Ford was one of the paper’s regular blaggers and had worked on “various investigations,” including into the soccer authority FIFA. Witherow did not respond to a request for comment.

Former Sunday Times journalists who overlapped with Winnett and Lewis at the newspaper, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, characterized the methods as infrequent and often justified in the public interest.

“British journalism is naughtier and scrappier,” said one journalist who worked with both Winnett and Lewis. “There’s a feeling of being embattled because access to public information is so much more restricted here.”

But Steven Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster who has consulted parliamentary committees on press standards, said reporters who rely on blagging are using “illegal means” but letting others bear the brunt of the risk.

“People like Ford are exploited and very useful, and then, when it all went wrong and the whole system was exposed, the senior editorial people like Winnett all shrug and say, ‘I had no idea what was going on, look over at that bloke there,’ who is by then cowering in the corner alone,” Barnett said.

Sometimes, the techniques fall flat, as in the case of Ford’s alleged attempt to obtain Blair’s yet-to-be-released memoir.

Random House told authorities that suspicious calls had been made to obtain the manuscript in the summer of 2010, according to police records. Authorities traced the phone number back to Ford, who was soon arrested. At his home, police found jottings with the words Random House, as well as a Dell computer used to access an email address identified with the maneuver, according to police records.

Ford turned to the law firm that he would later say was recommended by Winnett, according to the draft chapters and the police records. And in early 2012, he was given a caution, an official police warning in lieu of a prosecution.

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Ellison reported from New York, and Davis reported from Washington. Cate Brown and Alice Crites contributed to this report.