Washington Post publisher alleged to have advised Boris Johnson to ‘clean up’ phone during Partygate Covid scandal

<span>Lewis has also been accused of using fraudulently obtained phone records for newspaper articles in the UK.</span><span>Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images</span>
Lewis has also been accused of using fraudulently obtained phone records for newspaper articles in the UK.Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Will Lewis, the Washington Post publisher, advised Boris Johnson and senior officials at 10 Downing Street to “clean up” their phones in the midst of a Covid-era political scandal, according to claims by three people familiar with the operations inside No 10 at the time.

The advice is alleged to have been given in December 2021 and January 2022 as top officials were under scrutiny for potential violations of pandemic restrictions, a scandal which was known as “Partygate”.

The claims suggest Lewis’s advice contradicted an email sent to staff at No 10 in December 2021 which instructed them not to destroy any material that could be relevant to an investigation into the flagrant breaking of Covid lockdown rules by Johnson and officials who worked for him.

Sources said they understood they were being advised to remove photos and messages from their phones that could be damaging in any investigations.

Lewis, the sources alleged, made some of the requests personally as he was carrying out work as an informal adviser to Johnson from late 2021 to July 2022.

Lewis was a member of a so-called “brain trust” of Johnson’s close political allies who were leading an effort – codenamed Operation Save Big Dog – that tried but ultimately failed to salvage Johnson’s premiership. Lewis was awarded a knighthood in 2023 for his political service to the conservative prime minister.

The allegations regarding Lewis’s advice relate to a period covered by a civil service investigation and before the Partygate scandal became a police matter. The Metropolitan police launched its investigation on 25 January 2022.

Related: Washington Post accuses incoming editor of using work of ‘blagger’

A spokesperson for Lewis said: “This story is categorically untrue.”

A spokesperson for Johnson told the Guardian: “This story is untrue.”

Lewis, 55, was appointed publisher of the Washington Post in November 2023. His future is looking uncertain, however, after a series of damaging stories in US media outlets, including the Washington Post, about his journalistic record and alleged efforts to kill negative stories about him.

A recent story in the New York Times reported allegations that Lewis and Robert Winnett, a former colleague of Lewis’s in the UK who was recently appointed to run the newsroom as executive editor, used “fraudulently obtained phone and company records in newspaper articles” when they worked as journalists in London two decades ago. The article cited a former colleague, the published account of a private investigator and a New York Times analysis of newspaper archives. Neither Lewis nor Winnett responded to questions by the New York Times.

In its own article, the Washington Post claimed that Winnett used material from a so-called “blagger” who obtained the information using deception while working as a journalist at the Sunday Times during the 2000s.

Winnett did not respond to questions from the Post. The Sunday Times said in response to this and previous reports that it “strongly rejected” accusations it had “retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally”.

While Lewis’s journalistic record has been re-examined, far less attention has been paid to his brief stint in politics serving the former controversial conservative leader Boris Johnson.

The pair reportedly had a work association as well as a friendship, which included Johnson returning to work as a columnist for the Telegraph in 2008, when Lewis was editor of the conservative newspaper.

Johnson was paid £250,000 a year for the weekly column, and described this payment as “chicken feed”. It was his second salary to his “day job” of mayor of London, for which he was paid £140,000.

Lewis’s decision to join Johnson as an informal adviser followed his April 2020 departure from Dow Jones, where he served as publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

The adviser role was unpaid, according to reports, and came at an increasingly desperate political moment for Johnson.

The then prime minister was facing huge pressure from the public and his own political party over his knowledge of partying during lockdowns within No 10. The UK’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, stepped down from his role investigating lockdown-breaking parties inside Downing Street after claims emerged he had hosted an event himself over the same period. The police investigation was launched on 25 January 2022 and ultimately led to Johnson being fined for breaching restrictions.

Operation Save Big Dog, so called because Johnson referred to himself as Big Dog and his principle private secretary, civil servant Martin Reynolds, as a “loyal labrador”, reportedly involved plans to fire high-profile figures within No 10 that could be blamed for Johnson’s political difficulties.

The operation and allegations that pressure was being put on staff to delete evidence of lockdown-busting parties were first reported in January 2022.

Sources claim that they were told to “clean up” their phones of photos and messages related to partying which flew in the face of the lockdown restrictions Britain’s political leaders had imposed on the rest of the country.

It was later confirmed that Johnson had knowledge of several events and he was issued with a fixed-penalty notice. Sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the claims, said Lewis made some of those requests to clean up phones personally.

The allegations by the sources suggest that Lewis’s advice contradicted an email sent in December 2021 that instructed staff not to destroy any materials that could be pertinent to any potential future investigation. It is unclear if Lewis himself saw the emailed instruction.

The disappearance of WhatsApp messages from inside No 10 was separately raised in an unrelated episode.

A Covid inquiry in Britain in December 2023 heard from Penny Mourdant, who served as Johnson’s paymaster general during the pandemic, that a series of WhatsApp messages with Johnson had mysteriously disappeared from her phone. She told the inquiry she noticed messages were missing in May 2021 and that she had tried to repeatedly raise the issue with No 10. Johnson himself gave evidence that about 5,000 WhatsApp messages from his old phone, covering the period from January to June 2020, had been impossible to retrieve. He told the inquiry he had not removed any WhatsApp messages from his phone.

Lewis has separately faced accusations in court proceedings in Britain that he helped lead a cover-up of criminal activity by his former employer, News Corp, in which millions of potentially damaging emails were deleted that could have exposed more details about the use of hacking by the now defunct News of the World tabloid and the Sun, another News Corp publication.

News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp, has said in response to reports on hacking claims that it has been “paying financial damages to those with proper claims” and that it has made “commercial sense” to agree a settlement in some cases. It has also said the Sun does not accept liability or make any admissions in the disputed claims still going through the civil courts.

Lewis has previously denied the allegations and is not a party to the proceedings. British prosecutors decided in December 2015 not to file criminal charges against Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, saying at the time that there was no evidence that email deletion was undertaken to pervert the course of justice.

Lewis reportedly sought to put pressure on Sally Buzbee, the outgoing executive editor at the Washington Post, over the paper’s coverage of the cover-up allegations, according to reports in the New York Times and NPR. A spokesperson said in a statement: “William did not pressure Ms Buzbee from publishing any stories during her tenure at the Post, including the stories she brought up to him. To suggest otherwise is completely false.”