Jury clears former Sun journalist who faced trial for looking at celeb's flirty texts

A former Sun reporter has been cleared of plundering a stolen mobile phone for flirty texts and pictures between a PR woman and a well-known television personality.

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

The Old Bailey heard he was handed the phone by Sameena Rashid, who had contacted the newspaper about a potential story based on its contents.

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

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

In his defence, Ashford said he did not think at the time he was given it that the phone was stolen. He considered the possibility that the PR woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and Rashid had been in on a deal to leak her own story.

Ashford was charged after police uncovered a number of emails among the large amount of information handed over by News International as part of the wider hacking inquiry in 2012.

It is the first case brought by police under Operation Tuleta, the investigation into allegations of computer hacking at newspapers.

Ashford, of Coulsdon, south London, was found not guilty of possessing criminal property between 11 October 2009 and 16 October 2009.

He was also found not guilty 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.

Ashford said: "I am immensely relieved that the jury have reached a just verdict.

“I would like to thank my family, friends and legal team for their unwavering support and my thoughts remain with my former friends and colleagues who face a similar ordeal."

Media lawyer Gavin Millar QC said: "The CPS should review the basis on which they decided to pursue this case in light of the evidence that emerged at the Old Bailey and the jury's decision.

"They should apply any learning from that review to the prosecutions of other journalists – of which there are far too many at the moment.

"These prosecutions are chilling freedom of expression in this country and causing anxiety among journalists. They are having a very detrimental effect on journalism as a whole. The fear is that they will ultimately deter journalists from doing their jobs, which is a very serious consequence.

"There should be a review of the reasoning that led to the decision to prosecute Ben Ashford, and prosecutors should think very carefully about what other cases are being pursued against journalists.

"It's very worrying that the police and CPS are pursuing this number of prosecutions with such zeal, many of which are really quite trivial matters."

Ashford's career was shattered by his arrest in September 2012. He lost his job working for the Daily Mail in the US and also his visa, meaning he could not even return to the US to collect his possessions.

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