Former Sun reporter accused of illegally reading mobile messages 'absolutely certain in my mind it was not stolen'

An ex-Sun reporter from Coulsdon in Surrey thought a PR girl who exchanged flirty texts and pictures with a well known television personality may have been trying to leak her own story when he was given her mobile phone, a court heard.

Ben Ashford, 35, is on trial at the Old Bailey accused of handling stolen property and accessing data on the woman's iPhone after it was stolen on a night out in Manchester in October 2009.

Giving evidence in his defence, Ashford said he never thought the phone was stolen when he was given it by Sameena Rashid who had contacted the newspaper about a potential story.

Rashid, who claimed the phone had been handed to her by a friend, had been happy for him to tape record their meeting and she had even signed a contract for payment if the information proved useful to the newspaper, he said.

Ashford told jurors: "I thought she could be telling the truth as she described. It could be entirely conceivable that she could know (the PR woman) and could be in on some bid to get something out in the public."

Asked by his lawyer Orlando Pownall QC if that was common in the media world, Ashford replied: "I think it's very common. So many stories are contrived anyway by PR people or middle men of some sort.

"The person the story is about sometimes wants the story to get out but they don't want to be seen to be delivering it themselves. The other possibility was there was nothing on the phone and it's a wind up."

He added: "I did not sit there and examine it under a microscope. I did not know which of these possibilities was right. I was absolutely certain in my mind that it was not stolen."

The defendant also told the court that he had only heard of the 1990 Computer Misuse Act in the context of "drug king pins" but he was aware that handling stolen goods was a crime.

Mr Pownall asked him if during the course of his employment, in particular at the Sun, he had been given any training on either aspect of the law.

Ashford replied: "Absolutely not."

Asked how different the climate in journalism is now compared to 2009, Ashford said: "Very different – so much has happened. There have been inquiries, Leveson, all kinds of things. I think people have gone back and introduced training and are more aware of things."

The prosecution has said that Ashford handed the phone back to its rightful owner on instructions from the Sun, but not before he spent a night going through the contents of the phone which revealed her relationship with two celebrities referred to in court as A and B.

Two days later she reported the theft to the police. Ashford was interviewed as a witness and Rashid was later cautioned for theft.

Ashford is charged with possessing criminal property between October 11 2009 and October 16 2009.

He is also accused of causing a computer – the iPhone – to perform a function with intent to secure unauthorised access to a programme or data, between the same dates.

The offences are contrary to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and Computer Misuse Act 1990 respectively. He denies both charges.

The trial continues.

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