The most impressive interviewee was Lewis, who represented phone-hacking victims, before himself being placed under surveillance by the paper. He seemed bemused but unbroken by the events that flowed from his original case against the Murdoch empire, merely saying: “Two years or so ago I walked into a John Grisham
The Guardian said of Mark Lewis
“Think Erin Brockovich, or any John Grisham paperback. Think a giant multinational company playing fast and loose and a gallant lawyer bringing them to heel. Think News International and Mark Lewis (with Colin Firth natural casting for the film of Hacked Off). Month after month, year after year now, Lewis, a solicitor from Manchester, has been at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal and almost all its resultant cases: Gordon Taylor from the footballers’ union and many more. It was his pursuit of the News of the World and its hired hacker, Glenn Mulcaire, which produced the documents showing that Ian Edmondson, the paper’s top news executive, was involved (and which led to Edmondson’s abrupt departure).
Where Scotland Yard faltered, he says, such civil prosecutions have led the way, turning up evidence that has left the good ship Rupert holed beneath the waterline. Without his zeal, there might have been no Guardian stories, no momentum, no stink.
Into the spotlight – Mark Lewis on how he became part of the phone-hacking story
Author: Suzi Ring 03 Feb 2012 | 00:00
As the legal scourge of phone-hacking, Mark Lewis’ journey has taken him through unemployment, personal setbacks and libel battles to himself end up in the headlines.
Suzanna Ring reports
News of the World (NoW) victims’ lawyer Mark Lewis is surprisingly humble for a man who has played a pivotal role in the closure of one of the UK’s largest newspapers and has barely been out of the public eye in recent months.
Sitting in his offices on the Strand amid numerous cardboard boxes and whitewashed MDF-style walls, Lewis seems far from the flashing cameras and media attention that has encapsulated him for the two years since it emerged that phone-hacking had become widespread
Yet the lawyer, who has acted for victims in some of the most high-profile phone-hacking cases including the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor, is responsible for putting some of the world’s biggest media moguls, including Rupert Murdoch, in the hot seat.
Now, as he views the ongoing investigations into what has become a defining moment in British public life, often compared to the banking crisis and the furore over MPs’ expenses, Lewis explains why he hasn’t yet celebrated his success and why he could just as easily have acted for NoW.
Born in Manchester in 1964, Lewis decided that he wanted to be a lawyer at the age of 13 for two reasons. First, he thought it would earn him a decent living and, second, he had been a prosecution witness in a court case in which he describes himself as having been “excellent”.
This description of himself plays to the arrogant persona that one could be forgiven for assuming Lewis has from the amount of press attention that he has willingly participated in since the phone-hacking scandal broke, but the sardonic tone and smile that accompanies the assertion makes it apparent how misunderstood he has sometimes been. (It has often gone unnoted that part of Lewis’ role for the family of Milly Dowler is to act as their spokesperson, which he admits “plays to my skillset” but has sometimes been misconstrued as looking to inflate his own status.)
Going on to study law at Middlesex Polytechnic in 1983, Lewis set out to work in corporate law, an aspiration that was quickly put to bed when his training saw him thrust into contentious practice.
However, it was not until he joined Manchester firm George Davies and was handed the Taylor case in 2008 that his life began to resemble a John Grisham novel.
“Before the phone-hacking scandal I would describe myself as being behind the camera. I acted for lots of people who were newsworthy and lots of cases that were newsworthy. At some point I became part of the story,” he says.
Being a lawyer at George Davies, the PFA’s go-to law firm for around 50 years, it was only a matter of time before Lewis would deal with such a well-known client. However, the case turned out not to be just a role for another high-profile client but also key to thrusting phone-hacking into the public consciousness, after the £725,000 settlement paid to Taylor by NoW owner News International raised questions in Lewis’ mind as to why such a large sum was offered.
Describing it as his “eureka moment”, Lewis told the Leveson Inquiry into the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal earlier this year that he realised a message left by PFA legal adviser Jo Armstrong on Taylor’s phone was the only way the story in the NoW alleging that the two were having an affair could have emerged.
“The tabloid journalist who listened knew of that message, added two and two and made 84. If it hadn’t been so sad, it would have been funny,” he told the inquiry.
Following the Taylor case, Lewis was asked to act for PR mogul Max Clifford and also appear on Newsnight to talk about the Taylor payment, but his firm said no to both, with Lewis given the option of declining the offers or losing his job. He chose the latter.
“Two and a half years ago I lost my job and I got divorced. George Davies gave me an ultimatum that within an hour I had to undertake not to act for others in phone-hacking and not to appear on Newsnight. I asked for details, to which they replied I had been expelled as a ‘good leaver’,” he says.
An unglamorous 10-month period working for personal injury firm Stripes Solicitors in Manchester ensued before Lewis moved to London in 2010 because “no-one in Manchester would hire me” to join his current firm Taylor Hampton Solicitors.
Yet if Lewis was having his share of bad luck, professionally his fortunes began to change when he received a message from Sally Dowler, the mother of Milly Dowler, regarded as the most shocking alleged target of phone-hacking.
“In life you have to make decisions. It doesn’t really matter which route you choose – A or B – as long as you make a decision and don’t wish you had gone the other way. At times I thought I should have gone route A and not left George Davies, but I persevered and I couldn’t go back. I thought if I didn’t make that decision I would always regret not having a go more than having a go but failing,” he remarks.
Failure is certainly not something Lewis has shied away from over the years, and it seems living with multiple sclerosis (MS) since his 20s has given him a certain seize the moment attitude that has got him to where he is today. “I went from being 25 and carefree to married with three children and MS by 27,” he comments.
It is in fact his MS that has sometimes fuelled this misperception that he is so media hungry. He comments: “I don’t see the media attention I’ve got as very important, although it is useful to see what power and responsibility it can give. The fact that it may have been useful for other people with MS is a good side effect: I get a lot of private emails from people with MS who are encouraged by it.”
With four daughters aged between 16 and 20, his spell in the limelight has also served to make him a “cool dad”, which feels deserved after such a tumultuous few years.
Lewis’ determination in advising alleged phone-hacking victims at times also made highly unusual professional demands of him. One particularly notable episode saw Lewis launch a libel claim against the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its chair Baroness Peta Buscombe after Buscombe publicly dismissed Lewis’ assertions regarding the extent of phone-hacking in a speech at the Society of Editors’ conference (Lewis had stated before the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sports Committee in September 2009 that a Metropolitan Police Officer had told him as many as 6,000 people could be victims of phone-hacking).
Lewis received a £20,000 settlement from the PCC in an incident that was to subsequently heap derision on the press watchdog as the extent of ethical breaches became public in the wake of the NoW’s closure.
He reflects: “I never anticipated that I would end up having to sue the PCC for libel; however, I saw a film of the speech where Baroness Buscombe grinned after defaming me. She left me with no choice but to wipe that smile off her face.”
Lewis has also personally been the subject of investigation, with it emerging last year that he was one of several solicitors advising in related litigation that had been the subject of surveillance by an ex-police officer hired by NoW. The surveillance also included video footage of Lewis’ teenage daughter, something that Lewis has openly expressed his disgust over.
“People sighed audibly when Tom Watson [Labour MP and staunch campaigner on phone-hacking] compared News International with the Mafia,” says Lewis. “All I know is that they placed the lawyers acting against them under surveillance, and their agent followed and filmed a teenage girl. I suspect that it was the Mafia that didn’t like the comparison.”
However, Lewis talks with seeming indifference about his achievements and concedes that he could have just as easily acted for NoW. “I like to think if I’d been instructed to act for NoW and not the victims I would have done it. As a lawyer you just see your client as your client and you have a duty to do your best for them,” he comments.
However, his nonchalance also reflects a professional detachment that is underlined when he explains how he once worked for someone accused of being a neo-Nazi. It was hugely challenging to his own Jewish beliefs, but he says it is part of the importance of ensuring everyone gets a fair trial. He does concede, though, that when it comes to NoW, “with all that’s happened to these people, it’s nice to be acting on the right side”.
Although Lewis hasn’t opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate since the NoW was closed, he acknowledges it is nice to know that people now believe he was telling the truth about phone-hacking.
And with the same seemingly indifferent attitude he shows to his success, he adds: “My life’s a great story, but I wish I was reading it rather than being in it”.