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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

The Times and Computer Hacking

The Times' Editor James Harding is before Leveson today and it could be an interesting session.

Harding has been impressive in allowing his paper to give proper coverage of the whole 'hackgate' affair at News International. Not all newspapers would have been as brave to report in a similar way on allegations against their own proprietor and sister papers.

Yet while the Times has covered the trials of the Murdochs and the News of the World, will Harding be as equally transparent about allegations about his own reporters?

In a witness statement * to the Leveson Inquiry, NI's Interim Director of Legal Affairs, Simon Toms, admitted there had been an incident of computer hacking by one of the Times' staff.

"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."

Just who was the reporter and why were they disciplined?

I wonder too whether Harding will be quizzed today over The Times's decision to 'out' the anonymous police blogger NightJack?

I was appalled - and said so at the time - by the way the paper decided to turn this into an issue of press freedom. In the end, Lancashire police officer Richard Horton, who won the Orwell Prize for Blogging, lost his legal bid to protect his anonymity.

Given that all editors rightly defend the anonymity of their sources, it seemed extraordinary to have a paper determined to pursue a copper who was clearly writing in the public interest on life at the sharp end.

Patrick Foster, the Times reporter who wrote the story, has since left The Times. (He 'let go' after an unrelated incident involving a conference call with the BBC). But back in 2009, I recall he was taken aback when asked by the Standard's Londoners' Diary how he had obtained his 'scoop'. I will blog later on details of Foster's explanation on how he identified Horton.

Will the Leveson lawyers today ask Mr Harding just what his legal team knew and his editorial team knew about how Horton had been identified? Given that they took this to the High Court, surely they checked?

Also up today is the Guardian's Alan Rusbridger. I wonder what he thinks of Foster's role in the NightJack affair?

After all, Foster now writes for the Guardian....

 

*FOOTNOTE: Both Press Gazette and Jack of Kent have also noticed.

 

UPDATE: Tom Mockridge, the CEO of News International, has today tabled a witness statement (and a big thanks to David Allen Green for the link) that sheds more light on the above:

"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."

In an amended witness statement, Mockridge added:


"At paragraph 20.2 of my first witness statement of referred to a reporter at The Times who might have gained unauthorised access to a computer in 2009. At the date of my first witness statement, it was my understanding that the reporter in question had denied gaining such access. Following further enquiries, I now understand that the reporter in fact admitted the conduct during disciplinary proceedings, although he claimed that he was acting in the public interest. The journalist was disciplined as result, he was later dismissed from the business for an unrelated matter."

Well, there you have it. A Times journalist admitted to 'unauthorised access to a computer' ie hacking, was disciplined and later sacked for an unrelated incident. Sound like anyone we know?

Way back in 2009, Patrick Foster maintained that he had found out all the information about NightJack from publicly available sources and good old fashioned, journalistic detective work (ironic given NightJack's dayjob). I think that was The Times' corporate defence too. In fact, Foster may have told the High Court the same..

[I've tweeted him for a response, but no joy so far].

When the row broke, Times leader writer Danny Finkelstein was unabashed about the 'outing' of NightJack in several Comment Central pieces. But strangely only this one (making a general case on the pitfalls for anonymous bloggers) seems to still exist. His other pieces HERE and HERE are just not linking. This may, of course, be a technical issue.

FURTHER UPDATE:Re Danny's posts, It is inded a technical issue, a merely problem from switching platforms. Danny's defence is HERE and HERE. (they're behind a paywall but I'm not against that). I suspect Danny stands by his original posts, given that they didn't rely on how NightJack was outed but why.

 

3PM UPDATE: I wonder if Richard Horton will take this up in the courts. After all, (as Greg Callus points out) the court judgement reveals that his lawyer changed his defence away from breach of confidence because he accepted that Foster had arrived at his identity through 'a process of deduction and detective work':

"It was asserted in the Claimant's skeleton for the hearing of 28 May that his identity had been disclosed to The Times in breach of confidence. By the time the matter came before me, on the other hand, Mr Tomlinson was prepared to proceed on the basis that the evidence relied upon from Mr Patrick Foster, the relevant journalist, was correct; that is to say, that he had been able to arrive at the identification by a process of deduction and detective work, mainly using information available on the Internet."

The Leveson lawyers haven't touched any of this in the evidence session. But James Harding's own witness statement says;

"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".

 

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