Sun reporter trawled through 'flirty texts' and photos between PR and celebrity on stolen phone, court hears

A Sun reporter trawled through a stream of "flirty texts" and personal photographs exchanged between a PR woman and a television celebrity after getting his hands on her stolen mobile phone, a court heard yesterday.

Ben Ashford, 35, got hold of the woman's iPhone after her handbag was stolen during a night out at the Circle Club in Manchester in the early hours of 11 October 2009, the Old Bailey heard.

Prosecutor Peter Wright QC said: "The phone contained a great deal of personal information, including the contact details and a number of very personal messages to and from two celebrities with whom she was acquainted."

Ashford handed it back three days later on instructions from The Sun, but not before he spent a night going through the contents of the phone which revealed her relationship with the celebrities referred to in court as A and B, jurors were told.

He assured the woman, who cannot be named, that no story would be published as he gave the phone back via a friend – along with his business card, the court heard.

Two days later she reported the theft to the police and Ashford was interviewed as a witness, the court heard.

He handed over details of the woman he got the phone from, and made a witness statement.

The court heard Sameena Rashid had phoned The Sun about a potential story based on the contents of the phone, which she said was handed to her by a friend.

When Ashford met her, he took the phone and handed over a document outlining payment if the information she provided proved useful to the newspaper, jurors were told.

He told police that when he looked at the phone and realised it contained information of a "sensitive nature" he handed it back "as soon as possible". Rashid was later cautioned over the theft.

However, Wright said Ashford had been "exceedingly economical with the truth" in his dealings with the police.

He said: "He had interrogated that phone in considerable detail. He had obtained a great deal of information both in text messages and photographic images that were held on it of a deeply personal nature."

A string of emails discussing a potential story about the woman and the celebrity A were revealed after News International, the parent company of The Sun, handed over the information as part of the wider hacking inquiry in 2012.

Wright said among the information was a draft story referring to "an individual who is a celebrity who had been exchanging flirty texts" with a PR woman.

There was also a memo from Ashford to a colleague saying: "I have rattled through hundreds of texts. While the information is a bit of a patchwork it gives a snapshot of what has gone on between our sexy PR and A….There is a string of sexually explicit exchanges.."

In another exchange, Ashford says Rashid seemed "pretty honest" but he could not "exclude the possibility" that the phone had been "pinched", the court heard.

Wright said: "We say it could not be clearer as to what he knew of the origins of that particular phone."

Furthermore, The Sun came across tweets from the woman about the theft of her phone at the nightclub, saying she was "devastated" at the loss, the court heard.

Wright said Ashford suggested the only way to do a story was to "track down the girl and see if she bites", the court heard.

In February 2010, the court heard there was another email from Ashford to a colleague in which he said he had been "intentionally woolly" about what he had done when he spoke to police about the incident.

When he was arrested in September 2012, Ashford declined to respond to questions. He was charged on 30 September 2013.

Ashford, of Coulsdon, Surrey, is on trial charged with possessing criminal property between 11 October 2009 and 16 October 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.

Ashford, who no longer works at The Sun, is on bail.

The trial continues tomorrow.

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