The admission came after pressure began to mount on the News International title following a series of potentially damaging revelations over the past two weeks.
As reported by Press Gazette on 10 January, news that The Times had been involved in hacking emails first emerged in a witness statement submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by News International interim director of legal affairs Simon Toms.
In his evidence the lawyer said that a Times journalist had been disciplined in 2009 for his involvement in computer hacking:
I have been made aware of one instance on The Times in 2009 which I understand may have involved a journalist attempting to access information in this way.
However, I also understand that this was an act of the journalist and was not authorised by TNL [Times Newspapers Limited]. As such, I understand it resulted in the journalist concerned being disciplined.
One week later Guardian reporter David Leigh revealed the identity of the reporter: former graduate trainee and media correspondent Patrick Foster, who was later dismissed from the company following an unreleated incident.
Leigh reported that Foster had ‘openly disclosed that he guessed security questions’for an anonymous email account run by Richard Horton, the Lancashire detective behind the Nightjack blog.
In April 2009, Nightjack won the inaugural Orwell blogging prize, when he was praised by judges for his no-holds barred depiction of frontline policing and his criticism of politicians and senior police officers.
Two months later he was identified in a story in The Times (behind paywall) after the High Court refused an order to stop the newspaper naming him. He later shut down his blog and was reprimanded by Lancashire Police.
As Leigh noted, however, nowhere in its coverage in 2009 did The Times mention that Nightjack’s identity had been exposed by illegally accessing his emails.
On 17 January, the New Statesman’s David Allen Green wrote a comprehensive blog post on the case,which revealed new details of The Times’ defence at the High Court.
In a detailed witness statement of 56 paragraphs and with 56 pages of exhibits, the journalist purported to show how by using considerable investigative skill and amazing detective work he was able to use minute details over several blogposts to piece together the identity of the blogger.
Anyone reading this remarkable witness statement gets a sense that the journalist not only deserved his scoop, he also probably deserved a Pulitzer.
This witness statement (which I possess, but will not publish as it contains personal information about the blogger and his family) was impressive enough to change the course of the court case.
Had computer hacking been admitted to the court then there would have been little doubt that it would have affected the outcome of the case… At some point in 2009 the internal managers and lawyers at the Times became aware that the High Court had proceeded on a flawed basis in dealing with the NightJack injunction. This information may have come out before the court hearing or afterwards.
They would also have become aware that a major exclusive had been based at least in part on computer hacking. If the [David Leigh] Guardian revelation is sound, then it would appear that the Times needs to explain who knew what and when, and why nothing has been done about it until Lord Justice Leveson’s questionnaire.
Yesterday, in an article headlined “The Times and the Nightjack case” (behind paywall), the paper admitted that Foster ‘had in fact informed his managers before the story was published that he had, on his own initiative, hacked into Mr Horton’s email account”.
The report went on to say that ‘the incident raised issues about the approval process for newsgathering at the newspaper”.
But it also claimed that:
The role the hacking played in Mr Foster’s investigation remains unclear. Mr Foster identified Mr Horton using a legitimate process of deduction based on sources and information publicly available on the internet.
Harding was quoted as saying:
The newspaper published the story in the strong belief that it was in the public interest even though concerns emerged about the conduct of the reporter. After the judge handed down his judgment overturning the injunction on the grounds of public interest, we published. We also took the decision to look into the reporter’s conduct and he was subsequently disciplined.