The Low-Key British Newshound Taking Charge of The Washington Post


In the swashbuckling world of British newspapers, the editor Robert Winnett stands out for his lack of flash. Taciturn and low key, more likely to be buried in documents at his desk than hobnobbing at a Mayfair club, Mr. Winnett, the deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, is known for his focus on breaking news, once earning the nickname “Rat Boy” for his relentless drive for scoops.

Now Mr. Winnett is stepping into a spotlight that will be hard to avoid: This fall, he will become the editor of The Washington Post, taking over one of the most powerful and scrutinized jobs in American journalism at a pivotal time in the news industry.

His ascent is due to his longstanding ties to Will Lewis, the chief executive of The Post. Mr. Lewis, a Fleet Street star, mentored Mr. Winnett at The Sunday Times of London and later at The Telegraph, where Mr. Winnett spearheaded a groundbreaking investigation into fraudulent expenses that led to the resignations of scores of British politicians.

But Mr. Winnett remains an unknown quantity, both in elite American media circles and within the newsroom he will soon lead. He will arrive at The Post after 17 years at The Telegraph, a center-right paper associated with Britain’s Conservative Party. Some of his past practices, including the payment of a six-figure sum to obtain the documents crucial to the expenses investigation, run counter to the more stringent reporting ethics followed by American news organizations.

Representatives of The Post declined to make Mr. Winnett available for an interview.

But interviews on Monday with former colleagues and Fleet Street veterans presented a portrait of a scoop-obsessed journalist with a distaste for dinner parties and a passion for the Chelsea soccer team, whose unassuming exterior masks a dogged newshound who relishes tough stories on politicians of all stripes.

“He really believes in holding power to account, and believes that’s the most important job that journalism exists to do,” said Rosa Prince, the deputy U.K. editor of Politico, who worked with Mr. Winnett at The Telegraph. “He is so much more of a news person than someone who has particularly strong political opinions himself.”

Mr. Winnett was so eager to work in journalism that he picked up freelance assignments during his breaks from college at Oxford. He was still a student when he joined The Sunday Times of London in 1995 as a personal finance writer.

His ambition drew the notice of the business editor there, Mr. Lewis, who left for The Telegraph and later brought Mr. Winnett along with him. Covering Parliament, Mr. Winnett gained a reputation as “a master of spotting the gem in the dust of heavy information,” as a colleague once told The Guardian.

In 2009, somebody called the Telegraph offices with an enticing offer. The tipster was in possession of a small red hard drive containing thousands of documents that revealed widespread abuse by legislators of their parliamentary expense accounts. Taxpayer money had been used for personal mortgage payments and home upgrades like a moat.

It was an explosive story with the potential to upend the British political establishment. But when the tipster met with Mr. Winnett at a London wine bar, he asked to be paid for the information, calling it a way to protect the livelihood of his source. The Times of London and The Sun had turned down this offer; The Telegraph accepted it.

“We said: ‘Look, while The Telegraph doesn’t pay for stories in this way — we’re not a tabloid newspaper, it’s not something we do — but this is sensational. These people need some insurance. They could lose their careers,’” Mr. Winnett said in “The Disk,” a documentary produced by The Telegraph in 2020 to mark the 10th anniversary of the investigation.

At the time, Mr. Lewis was The Telegraph’s editor in chief. According to the film, when Mr. Winnett and a colleague approached Mr. Lewis with the notion of paying for the documents, they thought he might be persuaded to offer 30,000 pounds. Instead, Mr. Lewis threw out a higher number: £100,000. (A different Telegraph editor later described the amount as £110,000.)

Mr. Lewis defended the payment as being in the public interest. “The payment thing is a red herring,” he said in the documentary. “This is one of the most important bits of journalism, if not the most important bit of journalism, in the postwar period. I can’t think of a more impactful bit of journalism for Britain and British society, highlighting such profound wrongdoing and systematic abuse.”

Mr. Winnett coordinated every aspect of the investigation, which dominated British headlines for weeks, ended the careers of grandees in several political parties and won numerous awards. By 2014, he had been promoted to deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, eventually overseeing its 24-hour digital news gathering operation.

Mr. Winnett was also the lead byline on a Telegraph article in 2010 that involved the use of undercover reporters who posed as constituents of a cabinet member, Vince Cable, and surreptitiously recorded his unvarnished comments on a pending media merger involving Rupert Murdoch. The ensuing outcry forced Mr. Cable to recuse himself from adjudicating the merger.

Mr. Winnett himself did not go undercover, and Mr. Cable said on Monday that he did not know if Mr. Winnett had commissioned the article and knew him as a “serious political reporter.” The articles involving undercover reporters were later rebuked by a British press regulator.

At The Post, Mr. Winnett is slated to oversee all news coverage involving politics, business, tech, sports, features and investigations. He plans to move from London to Washington. In a memo distributed in The Telegraph’s newsroom, Mr. Winnett described his departure for The Post as “an emotional decision.”

“He’s very much 100 percent dedicated to work; that’s who he is,” said Holly Watt, a London journalist who has worked closely with Mr. Winnett. “To people who knew him early on, it was so evident that he would be an editor of a newspaper.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.



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