Mark Lewis arrives at the Leveson inquiry last year.

Mark Lewis arrives at the Leveson inquiry last year. Photo: Reuters

WHEN Rupert Murdoch testified before the Leveson inquiry at the end of April, strict security was in place to protect him from agitators such as the man who shoved a foam pie in his face when he made a similar appearance before parliament last year.

But the measures taken at the Royal Courts of Justice, or any other such measures taken elsewhere for that matter, won't protect the 81-year-old head of News Corporation from a more dangerous adversary - the Manchester lawyer who was instrumental in putting the company's hacking scandal in the public eye.

Mark Lewis took his usual perch in the gallery when Murdoch appeared at the Leveson inquiry, just as he shadowed James Murdoch when he appeared the day before. Lewis was taking note of the Murdochs' comments as he prepared to file phone-hacking lawsuits against News Corp's London papers in US courts, expanding the measures he has taken so far in Britain.

Lewis with the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler after meeting Rupert Murdoch in London.

Lewis with the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler after meeting Rupert Murdoch in London. Photo: Reuters

Rupert Murdoch told the Leveson inquiry under oath that British media abuses went beyond voice-mail interceptions by journalists at Murdoch's British newspapers. In a witness statement, he said News Corp had turned over evidence of ''suspected illegality'' to the US Justice Department and London police.

This comes at a time when Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the major US Senate committee, has written to Lord Justice Leveson asking if he has uncovered any evidence of questionable practices by News Corp in the US.

Though just one observer of the tribunal led by Judge Brian Leveson, Lewis has been transformed by the events of the past three years from a lawyer acting on behalf of phone-hacking victims into a key player in the drama. (Another lawyer suing News Corp told a judge on April 20 that the hacking victims probably now number 1174.)

James and Rupert Murdoch at a parliamentary committee hearing in London.

James and Rupert Murdoch at a parliamentary committee hearing in London. Photo: Reuters

''It's been a strange experience, a bit surreal,'' Lewis said in one of a series of interviews in New York as he laid the groundwork for US lawsuits. ''I was a face in the crowd, and now I've become a lead character.''

While Lewis is largely unknown in the US, his successful battles against News Corp's London tabloids have won him fame in Britain, where he appears frequently on television, opining on the latest twists and turns in the phone-hacking scandal that has particularly damaged the career of James Murdoch, the one-time heir apparent.

Lewis' success has also landed him on ''hot'' lists compiled by various British publications, from The Lawyer's ''Top 100'' to the London Evening Standard's ''1000 most interesting people''.

The Guardian compared him favourably to movie star and phone-hacking victim Jude Law, a juxtaposition that Lewis, 47, said he had trouble explaining to the oldest of his four daughters.

Being compared to any movie star is unusual for Lewis, who stands 1.9 metres and shuffles with a pronounced limp and a dangling right hand, a consequence of a 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis.

Lewis was in New York recently to meet civil rights lawyers Norman Siegel and Steven Hyman and discuss strategy for filing phone-hacking cases in the US.

At a press conference in Manhattan, he and his partners declined to say when they would file against News Corp. Lewis did say two Europeans and one American had claimed their voice-mail had been hacked on US soil between 2001 and 2006. Lewis says a fourth alleged victim had come forward.

With no litigation news announced, the visit was still a public relations success, generating articles in The New York Times and several London papers. The BBC and Sky News sent correspondents to the news conference, as did National Public Radio, the Australian Financial Review and Bloomberg News.

''I wouldn't have expected my going to New York to be big news on either side of the Atlantic,'' Lewis said. As for prospective clients, the media coverage helped.

''People have been contacting me who have been aware of things,'' he said.

It wasn't long ago that the media attention Lewis received was scornful dismissal by the head of Britain's Press Complaints Commission in response to his claims of widespread phone hacking at Murdoch's papers.

In June 2008, as a partner at the George Davies firm in Manchester, Lewis negotiated a $1 million settlement on behalf of Gordon Taylor, head of Britain's professional soccer players' union. He discovered evidence that Taylor's voice-mail had been hacked by representatives of the Murdoch tabloid News of the World, which has since been closed as a result of the scandal.

James Murdoch, then CEO of News Corp's British operations, signed off on the settlement. Both sides had agreed to keep terms of the accord confidential. One year later, details of the settlement were revealed in a story published in The Guardian. The newspaper also revealed the existence of an internal email indicating that a number of News of the World reporters had been engaged in phone hacking. Until that point, the tabloid had maintained that the illegal practice was confined to one rogue reporter who'd been fired. The British body that regulates solicitors is investigating a complaint by Taylor that Lewis was the source of the leak to The Guardian, which Lewis denies.

Instead of enhancing Lewis' position at George Davies, the Guardian story undermined his career. By his own admission, Lewis did not fit in well with the collegial atmosphere at the firm. When he started doing media interviews about the Gordon Taylor settlement and generating inquiries from other alleged phone-hacking victims, his partners urged him not to take on those clients.

Lewis refused and was voted out, losing a partnership that had earned him an estimated £300,000 ($A471,000) a year before taxes. It was the second major blow Lewis suffered that year. The previous January, his 18-year marriage had come apart, forcing him to leave the six-bedroom home he had shared with his wife and daughters.

In September 2009, he accepted a position at another Manchester law firm. His earnings dwindled. He told the Leveson inquiry last year that his decision to keep handling phone- hacking cases resulted in a 97 per cent pay cut.

Lewis had a midlife crisis. His hairdresser gave him a punk cut and dyed his hair peroxide blonde. Newly single, he took to wearing skinny jeans, sporting an earring, donning punk-style T-shirts and Dr Martens shoes, and driving around town in a convertible.

To pay his bills, he began selling some of the expensive classic cars he had collected during his career at George Davies. One buyer, Michael Taylor, bought Lewis' 1929 Austin 7 and a 1919 Model T Ford. On learning that Lewis was a lawyer, Taylor referred him to his brother Daniel Taylor, who ran a London law firm, Taylor Hampton Solicitors.

By the time he joined Taylor Hampton in May 2010, Lewis had reverted to business suits and his natural hair colour.

He had also drawn the ire of the legal team representing News of the World, who had dispatched a private investigator to pry into his personal life, as well as that of Charlotte Harris, another George Davies solicitor who had left the firm to take on more phone-hacking cases.

In January 2011, Scotland Yard opened an investigation into phone-hacking at News of the World. The investigation, as well as an increasing number of lawsuits against the paper by celebrities, including actress Sienna Miller, led to TV news appearances by Lewis as a phone-hacking expert.

In April 2011, the police informed Bob and Sally Dowler, whose daughter had been abducted and murdered almost a decade earlier, that representatives of News of the World had hacked into their daughter's voice-mail account after her disappearance in 2002, listening to messages that had been left for her.

The Dowlers, who had seen Lewis on TV, retained him as their solicitor. Weeks after the Dowlers hired Lewis, The Guardian broke the news that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked on behalf of Murdoch's tabloid. The revelation shocked a public that had grown accustomed to reading savoury bits of gossip involving movie stars and other celebrities.

For Murdoch, the Dowler revelations were damaging. News Corp was within days of winning regulatory approval to acquire the 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting Group that it did not own.

Facing mounting opposition in Parliament after the Dowler news, News Corp withdrew its bid for BSkyB.

Rupert Murdoch himself flew to London to take control of the matter. A private meeting was arranged between Murdoch and the Dowler family, at the One Aldwych hotel. With Lewis looking on, Murdoch apologised to the Dowler family.

When Murdoch emerged from the meeting, he was besieged by a scrum of reporters shouting questions at him and protesters barking condemnations. Momentarily stunned by the crush, Murdoch retreated into the hotel, emerging moments later to read a brief statement. He then darted back into the hotel and left through a different exit.

With the stage to himself, Lewis read his own statement to the media in front of the hotel.

Two months later, News Corp agreed to pay £3 million to settle the matter, with two-thirds of the sum going to the Dowler family and one-third to a charity of their choosing. The settlement and attendant publicity established Lewis as the pre-eminent solicitor for phone-hacking victims.

''He's gone from being someone who wasn't on the radar screen to being the go-to person for phone-hacking cases,'' says Niri Shan, the head of media law at Taylor Wessing LLP in London.

''When he first took these cases on, he was taking a real risk, investing his time and money, and taking on a powerful company.''

LEWIS is basking in his new-found fame as the lawyer at the centre of the phone-hacking saga. His earnings, he says, still have a way to go to make up for the income he lost from the middle of 2009 to the middle of last year, but he says he's on his way back.

Last year, News Corp admitted it had put Lewis under surveillance. In November, police met Lewis and showed him evidence of the monitoring, including video footage of Lewis' ex-wife and his then 14-year-old daughter.

Lewis was outraged by the intrusion and demanded an apology from Derek Webb, the investigator who followed his family. Lewis says his firm is preparing to sue News International for invasion of his privacy.

Lewis' return to London from New York concluded a month-long, around-the-world trip that featured speaking engagements and media appearances in Australia, where Murdoch began to build his media empire.

As part of his non-stop assault on News Corp, Lewis peppers such appearances with one-liners and put-downs aimed at the company in general and James Murdoch in particular.

One quip involved a 2008 email sent to James Murdoch just before the Gordon Taylor settlement was struck by Lewis. In it, a subordinate passed along a warning that the hacking problems at News of the World were extensive. The email contradicted testimony by Murdoch, who said his subordinates never informed him of the depth of the problems at the paper.

Faced with the message, Murdoch wrote to Parliament in December, insisting he had never read the entire email. He said he'd received it on his BlackBerry on a Saturday afternoon.

At the time, Lewis quipped: ''I believe in Father Christmas, I believe in the tooth fairy, and I believe James Murdoch.''

His latest comment on the matter is: ''You can say what you like about James Murdoch, as long as you send it to his BlackBerry on a Saturday afternoon.''

BLOOMBERG