If you can’t believe the words of the UK’s “paper of record” when it is making a case at the High Court – what can you believe?
For that reason, and many others, today’s Nightjack’s revelations mark one of the most shocking turns of the Leveson Inquiry.
It seems that Patrick Foster, then a 24-year-old reporter on The Times, acted under his own initiative to hack the email account of Nightjack in 2009 to work out the secret police blogger’s identity.
That a reporter at The Times did not realise he needed to seek guidance from superiors before engaging in subterfuge of any kind, let alone an illegal act, is surprising.
After seeking legal guidance about this from his superiors – after the event – Foster was told-off and then apparently encouraged to stand the story up by other means.
Working back from the illegally obtained information, he managed to work out a way to identify Nightjack as Richard Horton by using publicly available means.
The Times then successfully fought an interim privacy injunction by concealing from the judge – Mr Justice Eady no less – that it had illegally hacked Nightjack’s email.
Times editor James Harding says he has only come to realise exactly what Foster had done, and that the High Court was misled, as a result of investigations made over the last couple of weeks.
But the episode casts a shadow over what has otherwise been an award-winning, campaigning and successful editorship of The Times.
News International deserves credit for the full disclosure that has led to the real story on this finally coming out.
However a few worrying questions still remain.
The Times has only now admitted what happened on the Nightjack story was very wrong and apologised – to the Leveson Inquiry, Richard Horton and Mr Justice Eady. But as we heard today, some insiders at The Times knew much more about this back in June 2009 and have kept quiet.
Some internal consideration of exactly what Foster had done must have happened before censuring him for “gross professional misconduct” in 2009.
For me the worst thing is that The Times used the cloak of press freedom to dishonestly argue for the lifting of an injunction which should have been upheld. By doing so it did the whole British press a grave disservice and made judges less likely to trust the word of journalists and newspapers in such cases in future.