Times lawyer Brett faces grilling at Leveson Inquiry

Alastair Brett, former legal manager at the Times, faced an intense grilling at the Leveson Inquiry today over the circumstances in which a reporter at the paper used email hacking to reveal the identity of anonymous police blogger, NightJack, in a 2009 story.

Former Times reporter Patrick Foster had identified the blogger as DC Richard Horton by gaining access to an anonymous email account run by Horton, the Inquiry heard last month.

Brett told the Inquiry he was “furious” with Foster when he approached him about the story and asked him if he had broken the law or if there was a public interest defence he could rely on. “I told him he had been incredibly stupid. He apologised, promised not to do it again,” Brett wrote in his witness statement.

“I was told it was a one-off occasion,” he said, “and I thought ‘I’ve got to tell him you cannot behave like this at a proper newspaper’.”

Email hacking is a breach of the Computer Misuse Act and does not have a public interest defence. Brett conceded he was unaware of the Act at the time.

He said Foster told him he could identify NightJack using publicly available sources of information. Brett told Foster that if this were possible then the Times would be able to publish the story, provided the reporter put it to Horton beforehand.

A stern and incredulous Lord Justice Leveson argued that the Times had misled the High Court over the unmasking of NightJack in their fight to overturn an injunction brought by Horton. He said Foster “used what he knew and found a way out to achieve the same result.”

Brett maintained Horton had been identified legitimately. “No he hadn’t, with great respect,” Leveson responded.  “He couldn’t put out of his mind that which he already knew.”

Leveson also accused the Times of exposing wrongdoing “on the basis than an individual would not seek redress.”

“What the Times have done,” the judge said, “doesn’t that mean you’re justifying any route you wish to take to get a story provided it is true?”

Brett concluded the heated session by stressing he did not condone Foster’s methods. “In 33 years I was at the Times this was the one and only case I had,” he said. “God I wish I could have done without it.”

“If you could have been in the room with me and Patrick, I mean, the air was blue,” he said.

Earlier today the Inquiry heard from Daily Mail associate news editor and former crime editor Stephen Wright, who warned against examining contact between the police and the media “to the nth degree”, suggesting that rules banning informal contact between the two might be “abused by senior officers who seek to control the information flow.”

“It could lead to a corruption of a different kind,” he added.

The Inquiry continues on Monday.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson