The possibility that there was an email-hacking scandal brewing at The Times first emerged in a few lines of written evidence published by the Leveson Inquiry on 10 January, and exploded yesterday as Times editor and News International issued a comprehensive mea culpa about the affair.
Here is a recap of how the story emerged:
10 January, 2012: Press Gazette reported on a few lines found in the otherwise innocuous witness statement of News International’s interim legal director Simon Toms (Toms is on secondment to NI from Allen and Overy).
In response to one of the stock questions about computer-hacking, Toms said:
I am not aware that any NI title has ever used or commissioned anyone who used ‘computer hacking’ in order to source stories.
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. As such, I understand it resulted in the journalist concerned being disciplined.
The next revelations came in statements provided by News International chief executive Tom Mockridge and Times editor James Harding published by the Leveson Inquiry on 17 January.
I shall restrict my response to this question to my knowledge of The Sunday Times and The Sun.
Neither I nor, to the best of my knowledge, The Sunday Times or The Sun has ever used or commissioned anyone who used “computer hacking” in order to source stories or for any other reason. In relation to The Times, I am aware of an incident in 2009 where there was a suspicion that a reporter on The Times might have gained unauthorised access to a computer, although the reporter in question denied it. I understand that that person was given a formal written warning as a result and that they were subsequently dismissed following an unrelated incident.
The Times has never used or commissioned anyone who used computer hacking to source stories. There was an incident where the newsroom was concerned that a reporter had gained unauthorised access to an email account. When it was brought to my attention, the joumalist faced disciplinary action. The reporter believed he was seeking to gain information in the public interest but we took the view he had fallen short of what was expected of a Times journalist. He was issued with a formal written warning for professional misconduct.
Harding was not questioned about computer-hacking on his first appearance before the inquiry that day, but Mockridge was:
Robert Jay QC: Can I ask you to clarify paragraph five. This is the access to a computer by a reporter at the Times. Are we talking about an internal computer or are we talking about a third party’s computer?
Mockridge: I believe it was a third-party computer.
Jay: Are there any specific issues which have caused you concern since you took over as chief executive officer ouside the ambit of phone hacking, issues which you’ve discovered which you would like to draw to the inquiry’s attention?
Mockridge: I don’t think there’s anything I would draw to the inquiry’s attention separately from the investigations [carried out by the Management and Standards Committee] which are progressing and which I think in time results of which will be notified to the authority – to the inquiry.
On January 19, The Times published a story headlined: The Times and the Nightjack case in (£) in which it said:
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.
In that story Harding said:
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.
Blogger David Allen Green has been scrutinising the Nightjack affair, and particularly the apparent concealment of email-hacking from Mr Justice Eady’s interim injunction hearing in 2009.
The same day that Allen Green appeared before Leveson, on 25 January, a letter to the inquiry was read out from Harding.
In it Harding said:
When the reporter informed his manager that in the course of his investigation he had, on his own initiative, sought unauthorised access to an email account he was told that if he wanted to pursue the story he had to use legitimate means to do so.
He did, identifying the person at the heart of the story using his own sources and information publicly available from the internet. On that basis we made the case in the High Court that the newspaper should be allowed to publish in the public interest. After the judge ruled that we could publish in the public interest we did.
Allen Green told the inquiry:
It seems to me that if you have used an email hack as part of an investigation you can’t artificially pretend you never did that. You will use that information as part of solving the puzzle which you have set yourself.
What seems to me to have gone wrong is that at the time it wasn’t very clear to the managers the role of the hacking that had taken place, and the Times said itself that they are unclear as to the role – actual role – although they have assured that the identification had been above board.
My one concern is that this should have been put to the court at the injunction application.
Yesterday, as the full details of the Nightjack affair were laid bare after a trawl through email records by News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee over the last two weeks, it turned out that Allen Green was completely right.