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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with William Lewis: The Future of the Media

Posted on 26 August 2020

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

This live session was held on 8 June 2020.

Journalist and businessman William Lewis spoke with Partner Greg Campbell about what happened behind the scenes of some of the biggest news stories over the past 20 years, his personal experience in transforming Dow Jones and Company, and his predictions for the future of media.

William was the former Editor of the Daily Telegraph when the paper broke the story of the MPs' expenses scandal, and managed News International after the closure of News of the World. Most recently William was Chief Executive of Dow Jones and Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

Greg Campbell

Good afternoon everybody and welcome to the latest session at the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  My name is Greg Campbell and I’m going to be your host today.  I’m delighted to welcome William Lewis here today to speak.  Will has had a fascinating career.  He started off in journalism at The Mail on Sunday.  Joined the FT.  Then on to The Sunday Times.  Then became the youngest editor of The Telegraph.  Then on to work for a News International and he then spent the last five years as Chief Executive of Dow Jones.  Welcome Will.  Thank you for coming along. 

William Lewis

Hello.  Delighted to be here. 

Greg Campbell

I just wanted to ask a kind of classic interview question.  So, what was it that drove you to become a journalist in the first place?

William Lewis

I think it was… look, in the 1970s and ‘80s growing up in Hampstead Garden suburb, the radio was always on.  Two newspapers landed every morning; The Guardian and The Daily Mirror.  The 1980s were incredibly interesting if you were interested in current affairs, Falklands, Miners’ Strike, Reagan, Privatisations, Collapse of the Soviet Union.  So, I think it was that.  It was very much, it began in the home, my insatiable appetite for news. 

Greg Campbell

The expense of a scandal which was broken by The Telegraph, has obviously had huge repercussions.  Could you just explain what the background of the expenses scandal was?

William Lewis

If you go back as far back as 2005, Parliament had begun to get lots of press enquiries about MPs expenses under what was then the new Freedom of Information legislation.  Parliament resisted those requests with quite a lot of vigour and over the next two-three years and under duress, the then Speaker of the House of Commons, the late Michael Martin, finally agreed to publish heavily censored details of every MPs expenses.  Many will remember a story about Home Secretary Jackie Smith’s husband.  He effectively claimed the cost of two adult pay-per-view movies on her expenses.  And that’s when the rumours about the fact that there might be a disc containing un-edited details of MPs expenses really took hold.  In April 2009, the fabled disc did come The Telegraph’s way. 

Greg Campbell

What were the ethical considerations when you were deciding whether to purchase this disc?

William Lewis

The first thing we had to consider was, is the disc actually genuine? The next thing I had to consider was the provenance of the information and many commentators at the time would say that the MPs expense investigation was the result of The Telegraph buying a stolen disc.  This wasn’t and isn’t true.  The legal issue was rather whether the information contained in the object passed to us could itself have ever been stolen.  And my legal manager at the time who took Counsel’s opinion on this, advised me that the information itself was not capable of being stolen and also, there were too many MPs to do it all in one go, so in what order do you do it.  So, again, people will know we decided the fairest way of tackling this was to start with the Prime Minister and work our way down. 

Greg Campbell

Do you think it’s had a, had a huge impact on British politics, way beyond the specifics of the scandal itself?

William Lewis

It came hard on the heels of the financial crisis.  Plus a series of other moments that had rocked the public’s confidence in our institutions.  There was a chance, a moment in time where we could have overhauled our political institutions and for lots of different reasons that was overlooked. 

Greg Campbell

Obviously then, you moved on from The Telegraph and you took the job as General Manager at News International, which was just at that point kind of convulsing under the beginnings of the phone hacking scandal.  Have you seen an impact in terms of journalistic ethics from the phone hacking scandal?

William Lewis

Ethical behaviours have definitely improved.  I think we’ve seen a major change in how papers operate since then, for the better.  I do worry that it’s now become ridiculously hard to get proper stories.  For public interest journalism to thrive, it does require a degree of public trust, right and that is part and parcel of the civic role that a free press plays.  Yes the press must tell the stories that few don’t want them to hear but not at any price. 

Greg Campbell

You then got the opportunity to go to Dow Jones as CEO of this huge organisation covering all sorts of digital and modern businesses and an old fashioned newspaper, The Wall Street Journal right at the heart of it.  I mean, what were the challenges when you arrived at Dow Jones as CEO?

William Lewis

What became apparent was that it hadn’t really grown for many years.  Innovation had stalled and the culture was really one of ex-growth.  It was about protecting market share and so we put in place an ambitious agenda to try and grow the company.  Over time, bit by bit, we began to improve the culture.  What had been the number three revenue stream, which was digital revenues from subscriptions became number one.  The thing that was best about it was a great team effort, was that the readers never noticed. 

Greg Campbell

How do you drive culture through such a large organisation?

William Lewis

Probably one of my most significant learnings over this last six year period is that if you haven’t got a world-class team, if you haven’t got a team at all at the top of your organisation that has shared values, the tiniest little split in a top team becomes a crevasse lower down the organisation.  So, you have to display and evidence deep authenticity because that will enable people to understand the kind of culture that you are trying to create.  It has to start at the very top of the company where established and genuine shared purpose, values and standards are discussed, worked on, evidenced and then begin to filter down to the company. 

Greg Campbell

How do you embed diversity within an organisation, which again is crossing borders?

William Lewis

I always suggest that people talk about the diversity challenge with the same passion and degree of application as they would do for their most significant business problem or most significant business opportunity.  What I’ve learned is that until you fuse recruitment and the diversity function, right, you actually, you’ve got diversity functions operating in a silo and not a half as effective as it could be if it’s actually part of a recruitment process.  A personal commitment at the top is very, very important. 

Greg Campbell

You’ve spoken about Covid-19 accelerating trends in media.  Do you want to just talk me through what those trends are and how the timelines have changed?

William Lewis

Some of the trends that were coming at us anyway obviously, number one would be the year of the cloud, leading to AI, leading to automation and leading to personalisation.   In a world where you can have a personalised experience in almost anything else, media is one of the last bastions of producer-led interest which is we will tell you what, when and how you should watch this.   I do think this personalisation era which we are now in is going to be the most significant challenge of all because it turns on its head almost all of the structures and beliefs about how a newsroom functions. 

Greg Campbell

It seems to me that there’s a terrible danger that as we move from kind of the Reithian view of, we will inform, we will be – media will be part of your fibre and good for you to just have what you want – that you lose the kind of commonality of facts and information and it makes you know, knowledgeable debate, it makes elections very difficult, it makes democracy very hard.  And with this personalisation of news and you know, client journalism rather than a kind of centre-trusted journalism, you… that bubble means that people never hear the other side and you get this increased polarisation.  Are there any answers yet to those challenges?

William Lewis

I think it’s probably the most significant issue facing the world right now, is the absence of facts right, for ordinary people and the crisis of mis-information I think almost all of the world’s ills I could trace back to that.  At the very time when the world has never needed facts more, the ability of professional media to deliver them has never been more challenged.  In a world in which people are increasingly going to want to read and watch how and when they do, is there a danger that they just only read things about left-wing politics, right-wing politics or more extreme politics? Yes there is and for me it’s going to be a mixture of personalisation and curation. 

Greg Campbell

Let’s take an example, so, Donald Trump’s tweets.  He’s famously churned out thousands of provable lies over the last three and a half years until very recently Twitter said he’s the President, it’s newsworthy, of course we’re going to let it go forward.  Can you manage an individual like that? Is it appropriate to edit Trump’s tweets?

William Lewis

For me, it’s so star-renderingly obvious it’s painful.   I cannot understand why Twitter, Facebook, whatever are allowed to print nonsense, lies.   Things that any media organisation would get strung up for and we have this complete imbalance.  

Greg Campbell

Is there still a place for journalistic balance? Is there still a place for a national broadcaster like the BBC saying, ‘We will tread carefully’?

William Lewis

The balance has become an excuse for one extreme point and another extreme point.   We’re forgetting what news organisations are meant to do which is deliver facts and that’s it and take a giant step back from commenting on it.  It is important, as we were saying, that societies, including the UK, do have, people do have access to a set of facts that are undeniably true around which they are going to then debate and that must be prioritised. 

Greg Campbell

I just want to take this opportunity to thank you very much for agreeing to come on today.  Fascinating to talk and discuss about how you’ve got here and what you see in the future.  I’m sure I’ll be seeing you doing some very interesting things.  Thank you very much Will Lewis and thank you everyone else for joining and thank you for your questions.  See you again at the next Mishcon Digital Academy.  Thank you. 

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