The libel lawyer who’s fighting for Israel

The libel lawyer who’s fighting for Israel

Mark Lewis for Times of Israel by Jenni Frazer April 12 2017

You really wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the media and libel lawyer, Mark Lewis. For a good 20 minutes of our interview Lewis re-lives — in withering detail — tiny victories over alleged antisemites at his old school in south Manchester.

His phenomenal memory in battles fought and won has propelled him to become one of the best-known libel specialists in Britain. Now he is bringing that steeltrap mind to bear on fighting battles for Israel — where he is the beneficiary of advanced medical treatment that may enable him to turn his life around.

Lewis’s latest victory was won last month in a new battleground, social media. He represented a food blogger and left-wing activist, Jack Monroe (who despite the name, is female), against one of the UK’s most controversial tabloid columnists, Katie Hopkins. After a war memorial was daubed with red paint, Hopkins — in error — attacked Monroe on Twitter, alleging that she had supported the action.

Unfortunately for Hopkins, Monroe comes from a military family and was furious at the allegation. She invited Hopkins to apologise — and when she did not, sued for libel, led by Mark Lewis. His tenacious work produced a stunning victory for Monroe, and an order by the court for Hopkins to pay her £24,000 — almost $30,000 — plus nearly three times that in court costs.

These days Mark Lewis, 52, is a partner in the prestigious central London law firm, Seddons, and is renowned as the leading figure in breaking the phone-hacking scandal which led to the closure of one of Rupert Murdoch’s most cherished newspapers, the huge circulation News of the World.

But Lewis’s early life gave no clues to his present high-profile image. Instead, he speaks of “being the freak in the family, because I was the clever one”, born and brought up in the northern city of Manchester to a secretary mother and a father, who by Lewis’s own account, drifted between periods of unemployment, or working as a joiner or in a sweetshop. “He was never particularly successful at anything, he just meandered about”, says Lewis.

But Lewis himself was clever, and won a scholarship to one of Manchester’s best schools, William Hulme, which he hated from Day One. His school career — according to Lewis — was a litany of run-ins with despised teachers, in which he refused to play according to school rules and attracted endless attacks as a result.

At William Hulme, he says, “I was quite outspoken, ran Jewish assemblies, was very big in BBYO (B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation) where I was regional president for a time, and always took my Jewish identity and support for Israel very seriously”.

Painstakingly Lewis reaches back to his schooldays, reliving slights by teachers, including one who addressed him as “Jewish, I mean Lewis”, and to whom he later stood up when the teacher threatened to report him to the local education authority, which paid Lewis’s school fees. “It’s nothing personal,” the 18-year-old student told his teacher. “Actually, it is personal. I just don’t like you.” The teacher backed down and Lewis was transferred to the supervision of another staff member.

He always knew, he says, that he wanted to be a lawyer, for an odd reason. “I liked old cars and I wasn’t very mechanical, so I thought, well, I like arguing and lawyers make a lot of money, so I can buy cars. It wasn’t that I wanted to save the world.”

He went to London to study and worked his way through by becoming a waiter at Sammy’s, one of the capital’s first kosher restaurants in the influx of Israeli-run eateries of the late 1980s.

Not long after he had begun working as a lawyer in London, Lewis experienced his first episode of MS, or multiple sclerosis, the debilitating disease of the central nervous system, in which the coating around nerve fibres become damaged. “I panicked”, he admits. “At 23 or 24 you don’t expect to be unwell”.

The neurological condition, for which there is currently no cure, has affected Lewis more as the years have gone by. He walks with a pronounced limp and has limited use of his right hand.

But characteristically, Lewis has refused to let MS define him. Though after he was diagnosed he went back to Manchester to work, he followed a relatively traditional path for a young Jewish lawyer — he married, had four daughters, “and I had a nice house, and all the old cars that I wanted. In 2006 I co-drove a 1926 Rolls Royce for the JNF’s London to Jerusalem rally. It was the best old car holiday I ever had.”

He was working in Manchester as a commercial litigator “with the odd bit of defamation thrown in”. But gradually, the defamation and libel side of Lewis’s practice grew until it formed around 40 per cent of his work.

Lewis’s law firm had always represented the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and in 2005 he took on the case of the PFA’s chief executive, who was accused by the News of the World of having an affair with the PFA in-house lawyer.

It wasn’t true, and Lewis prevailed on the newspaper not to publish any such story. But a year later he was watching TV and saw a story about the so-called rogue News of the World reporter, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who pleaded guilty to hacking the phones of the royal family.

The report mentioned some other celebrities whose phones had been hacked, too. One of them was the PFA chief executive. It turned out that he had spoken at the funeral of the father of the in-house lawyer — and that she had left a message on his phone to thank him. In hacking his phone, the reporter, according to Lewis, “put two and two together and made 84” — in other words, assumed that the CEO and the in-house lawyer were having an affair.

It was the beginning of a massive uncovering of phone-hacking in Britain and the opening of an inquiry into press behavior, the Leveson Inquiry, whose recommendations are still being hotly contested.

The revelation of the PFA case led to a huge upswing in similar claims by people all over the country whose phones had been hacked by tabloid journalists — and many of the cases, particularly after Lewis’s role was highlighted in a Guardian story in 2009 — landed on Lewis’s desk.

For reasons that are still unclear, his Manchester law firm gave him an ultimatum: stop accepting phone-hacking cases, or leave.

So Lewis left, and moved, after a 21-year absence, to London. His marriage had broken down and he was at a low point as far as work went.

And then he received a phone call from the Dowler family. Milly Dowler was a 13-year-old schoolgirl who had gone missing in March 2002. Her body was eventually discovered in September of that year. In the interim agonising months until their daughter’s remains were discovered, the Dowler family thought that she might still be alive because Milly’s phone was still accepting voicemail messages. It transpired, however, that Milly’s phone was one of an estimated 6,000 in Britain to have been hacked by the News of the World — and in Milly’s case, the paper had deleted some messages on her phone, destroying potentially crucial evidence.

Mark Lewis took on the Dowler case against the News of the World on a no win, no fee basis, and won. It was described as a “nuclear” moment and it led to the closure of the paper and a number of arrests.

“All of a sudden — I began to get clients from all over the place, from all over the world.” And Lewis became the go-to lawyer for celebrity cases of libel, and a familiar “talking head” on TV and radio.

The Jack Monroe/Katie Hopkins case is certainly a legacy from the phone-hacking cases. It’s become known as a “Twibel”, or “Twitter libel” case and Lewis, though obviously pleased with the outcome and the damages awarded to his client, has bigger fish to fry — namely how to apply the result to helping Israel on-line.

“I do like to take people on”, admits Lewis, who can be found Tweeting himself at all hours of the day, often indulging in hours-long back-and-forths with antisemitic trolls. “I don’t like to block people, because I believe in a free press, and I also don’t want to give them the satisfaction of putting ‘blocked by Mark Lewis’ on their timeline, as though they had intimidated me.

“There’s a Jewish choice in life”, he continues. “You can either be the Jew that people want to pick on — or they can say, oh, typical Jews, so belligerent. I always think, well, if people don’t like me, at least I’ve hit them.”

He’s ruthless, Lewis, believing that it’s necessary to be aggressive against antisemites on social media. “Someone can be a Nazi, but at least [if they are taken to court] they can be a homeless Nazi. I’m quite happy to take their homes off them. If these people would have rational debate, I would do that, but they are nutters who have conspiratorial theories and I will never change their outlook”.

A couple of years ago Lewis became a director of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI).. “None of us charge for our time but we devote it to putting legal arguments forward for Israel”. Many nights he stays up to midnight, giving legal advice on behalf of UKLFI. With some wryness, he says: “Had UKLFI existed when I was at school and the teacher called me ‘Jewish’ rather than ‘Lewis’, they could probably have sorted that out.”

Lewis never hides his beliefs, making it plain, where necessary, of his love of Israel if that might lead to a conflict of interest. So far, such plain dealing has not cost him any clients, though what has, ironically, is his own reputation — “people think either I must be too busy or too expensive. So it’s actually not as easy to get clients as it might be”.

When diagnosed with MS, says Lewis, it’s common for the consultant to ask the patient, “are you still working?” And if the answer is yes, sufferers are usually advised, “don’t do anything too stressful”. Neither of these strictures applies in Lewis’s case, in fact the opposite is true. His rather-too-public image and the continuing stress of his celebrity libel cases do have an effect on the progress of his condition, however much he wishes otherwise.

“I like to think that technology has caught up with everything,” he says, “for example, I can’t write with my right hand any more. But you don’t sign cheques any more, or sign credit card slips; you don’t write letters any more, you tap out emails… I’m quite adept on a keyboard with my left hand”.

He is, he says, a firm believer that there is a cure for everything “if you hang on long enough”. And last summer he heard about stem cell research taking place at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, and the running of clinical trials into a number of neurological diseases, including MS, ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Parkinson’s.

He successfully applied to be part of the Hadassah clinical trial and now, with his Israeli/British partner Mandy Blumenthal, travels to Jerusalem every six weeks for treatment — and what Israel is doing is being filmed, every step of the way, for a Channel 4 documentary to be screened in the autumn.

He won’t talk about the details of the clinical trial, which could last for 18 months before the results are assessed. But it is believed to be groundbreaking and revolutionary science taking place at Hadassah. Put it this way: if anyone could be cured by sheer force of will, it will be Mark Lewis.

  • 12 April, 2017