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

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