Times editor apologises to NightJack blogger

The editor of the Times has admitted to the Leveson Inquiry that a reporter at his paper used email hacking to reveal the identity of anonymous police blogger, NightJack, in a 2009 story.

James Harding was discussing an incident which former Times reporter Patrick Foster had identified the blogger as Richard Horton by gaining access to anonymous email account run by Horton.

Harding, recalled to give further evidence, said he had “learnt a great deal more” about the circumstances surrounding the event since his last appearance at the Inquiry a month ago.

He revealed that he and senior management figures at the Times only became aware of the email hacking after Mr Justice Eady had begun hearing the case at the High Court — to overturn the injunction Mr Horton took to protect his identity — but before a judgment was made.

The inquiry heard that the paper’s lawyer, Alastair Brett, “tore a strip off Foster” when he learned of the email hacking, telling him that “if he wants to pursue this story he has to do it by proper journalistic endeavour”.

Emails shown to the Inquiry today reveal that Foster asked his then news editor, Martin Barrow, to “leave a little space between the dirty deed and publishing”.

In another email from Foster to the Brett, the reporter said he could build his story with publicly-available information. This, Brett replied, may be the “golden bullet”.

Harding said he took the view that the story was in the public interest, though stressed it did not warrant Foster’s unauthorised access to the email account.

“I squarely do not approve of what has happened”, he said.

“If Mr Foster had come to me and said he had done this,” Harding said, “I would have taken the disciplinary action and I would have told him to abandon the story.”

“I sorely regret the intrusion into Richard Horton’s email account by a journalist in our newsroom. On behalf of the newspaper, I apologise”, he told the Inquiry. Harding also said he has written to Mr Justice Eady to apologise that the full details surrounding the story were not disclosed to the court in 2009.

Horton, who won the Orwell prize for his blog describing a PC’s life, closed down his site and removed its content.

Email hacking constitutes a breach of the Computer Misuse Act, for which there is no public interest defence. Foster was given a written warning for professional misconduct over the incident.

Also recalled today was Sun editor Dominic Mohan, who was quizzed about his paper’s page 3 feature, which since late 1970 has printed photos of topless women.

Mohan called the feature an “innocuous British institution” that celebrates natural beauty and represents youth and freshness. He said the feature does not contain models who had had plastic surgery, and that the women photographed were healthy and “good role models”.

Last month the Inquiry heard from a selection of women’s groups who discussed the sexualisation of women in media. Anna Van Heeswijk, of pressure group Object, said page 3  existed “for the sole purpose” of women being sex objects. She also pushed for “consistent” regulation of print media, arguing that the press should abide by the taste and decency watershed that determines what can be broadcast on television before 9pm.

Mohan also refuted claims the paper was sexist, arguing that it had campaigned for a range of women’s issues, such as speaking out against domestic violence in 2003 and raising awareness of cervical cancer screening following the death of reality TV star Jade Goody in 2009.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow and will include evidence from Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer; Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust and political blogger Guido Fawkes.

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

Leveson hints at statutory backing for press regulator

Lord Justice Leveson has today made suggestions that a new model may need statutory backing in order to “give some authority to independent regulation”.

The judge made the remarks while discussing today’s Times leader article defending a free press with the paper’s editor James Harding at the Leveson Inquiry.

While in favour of a “sufficiently robust” system, Harding expressed concerns that a “‘Leveson act’ would give politicians the ability to loom over press coverage”, which he said would have a “chilling effect” on press freedom.

“I do not want journalists from The Times, years from now, walking into the offices of politicians and behaving in a certain way,” he added later, reiterating his fear of reporters submitting to political influence.

Leveson was blunt: “Watch my lips”, he told Harding, adding that his mind was not yet made up. He said that the issue of regulation needed to be solved suitably by the press, adding, “it’s got to work for the public as well.”

Leveson also made it abundantly clear more than once today that he was not looking into mandatory prior notification.

Earlier in his testimony, Harding also said his proprietors “never raised a finger” to stop the Murdoch-owned title covering the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the News of the World last summer.

When asked if The Times was slow to cover the phone-hacking scandal perhaps due to external pressures,  Harding said that his paper followed up on the Guardian’s original story in summer 2009.

Following last summer’s revelations over the hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone, Harding said the Times featured the story “on the front page for about three weeks”, criticising the News of the World and News International.

Harding added: “Looking back I certainly wish we’d got on the story harder, earlier. The reality is that both the police and News International poured cold water on the story.”

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