What did the Times know about computer hacking and when?

The Guardian disclosure raises serious questions about the 2009 NightJack case.

In 2009, the Times "outed" an anonymous blogger. It was a strange exercise at the time. A "quality" newspaper devoted its resources to forcing into the public domain the identity of the author of the popular and extremely well-written police blog known as "NightJack". As Paul Waugh and others noted as it happened, it was somewhat weird and unfortunate that a newspaper which should respect anonymity as a condition for providing useful information was exposing an anonymous writer providing useful information.

Not only did the Times seek to expose the blogger, they even went to the High Court to defend an attempt by the blogger to protect his anonymity. In a detailed witness statement of 56 paragraphs and with 56 pages of exhibits, the journalist purported to show how by using considerable investigative skill and amazing detective work he was able to use minute details over several blogposts to piece together the identity of the blogger. Anyone reading this remarkable witness statement gets a sense that the journalist not only deserved his scoop, he also probably deserved a Pulitzer.

This witness statement (which I possess, but will not publish as it contains personal information about the blogger and his family) was impressive enough to change the course of the court case. As the case report states clearly at paragraph 3:

It was asserted in the Claimant's skeleton [argument - the summary of the claim] 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 [the blogger's barrister] 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 concession by the blogger's barrister was in my view determinative of the case. If there was no breach of confidence -- or no wrongful act of any kind in obtaining the information -- then there was really no inherent privacy which the blogger to assert. There was no need therefore for the judge Sir David Eady to see whether the interference with the privacy right was proportionate or lawful; there was no privacy right to begin with. And, as Eady said, blogging is essentially a public activity.

However, witness statements and exhibits do not come about easily. There is considerable input by lawyers. The decision to fight the case would also not have been made by the journalist in question, but by his senior managers. High Court litigation is uncertain and expensive. The decision to fight the case would not have been made lightly. And key to the advice given to senior managers and the decision they made would have been that witness statement. It would have been their decision to put this evidence before a High Court judge, and not that of the journalist.

The decision looked like it paid off. They won, and the Times duly ran the exclusive. Times columnists assured us ponderously that something rather splendid had been done in the public interest. And, in the meantime, the blogger pulled his blog and faced disciplinary action from his employer. The loss of the blog was particularly unfortunate, as it robbed the public of a brilliant insight into the daily lives of police officers written by perhaps the best writer the blogging medium has ever produced.

In my view, there was always something not quite right about what the Times did. The explanation offered smacked to me of being retrospectively compiled and reverse engineered, as if someone had solved a maze by starting at the centre and then worked outwards. I do not know if this was or was not the case. Soon it was clear that these doubts were shared. Just as "everyone" in Fleet Street knew that there was something not quite right about Johann Hari's journalism or the tabloids' use of mobile telephony, it was widely held that something about the exposure of NightJack did not stack up.

But even when it became known that the journalist in question had been disciplined as an undergraduate for hacking into his university computer network (but was still hired by News International anyway), that could not take anything away from the evidence sworn and put before the High Court. The managers and lawyers at Times Newspapers Limited has confidently assured the High Court that their young reporter had single-handedly pulled a journalistic feat comparable to what took over a hundred commenters at Jack of Kent to do for "David Rose".

And so nothing happened, until last week.

Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry team sent out questionnaires to all the newspapers. One of the standard questions was about computer hacking. This clearly caused a bit of an issue for the Times. Over four witness statements the Times admitted the following facts: that there had been a computer hacking incident in 2009 by a male reporter; the computer hacking was in the form of unauthorised access to an email account; a disciplinary process had been commenced after concerns from the newsroom; the reporter admitted the unauthorised access during that disciplinary process; it was held that there was no public interest in the attempted hacking; the incident was held to be "professional misconduct" and the reporter was disciplined; and the reporter is no longer with the business having been dismissed on an unrelated matter.

What was most striking about all this was the date: 2009. Was it possible that the computer hacking was in respect of the exposure of NightJack? This would be a serious matter, for not only would it raise issues under the Computer Misuse Act, it may be that there had been perjury in the case at the High Court. Had computer hacking been admitted to the court then there would have been little doubt that it would have affected the outcome of the case.

So a careful process was commenced. I blogged here yesterday putting together what the witness statements told us whist Paul Waugh at Politics Home made connections between the new evidence and the NightJack case, about which he had previously written. Tom Watson MP, the blogger Old Holborn, and others, asked questions on Twitter. But what was missing was a firm connection: there was no direct link between the new evidence and the NightJack case. It may not have been the same journalist, and it may not have had anything to do with a published story. I sent an email query to the Times (it remains unanswered).

And then, last night, the Guardian stated that the 2009 incident was in respect of NightJack. So, instead of answering a formal email request or properly disclosing it to the Leveson inquiry, a "source" leaked it to David Leigh of the Guardian. This was an odd move, not least because the journalist in question now writes regularly for the Guardian on media matters. (Yes, that irony is indeed correct: the Guardian uses a media correspondent with a record of computer hacking.)

One cannot be certain that the Guardian is correct without further evidence or an open admission. But if it is right, then this opens up some extremely serious questions for the Times. At some point in 2009 the internal managers and lawyers at the Times became aware that the High Court had proceeded on a flawed basis in dealing with the NightJack injunction. This information may have come out before the court hearing or afterwards. They would also have become aware that a major exclusive had been based at least in part on computer hacking. If the Guardian revelation is sound, then it would appear that the Times needs to explain who knew what and when, and why nothing has been done about it until Lord Justice Leveson's questionnaire.

In all this, one should not blame the journalist too much (and you may notice he has not been named in this post other than in the quotation from the case report). He did what one suspects many young and ambitious journalists would do if they could get away with it. The real failure here would appear to be -- as with Hari at the Independent -- one made by managers at the Times, and perhaps those who advise them. If the Times did throw its financial and legal might behind a story which they knew to be based on computer hacking and did not inform the court -- or found out later, and still told no one about it -- then that, in my view, would be a scandal perhaps comparable to the tabloids' abuse of phone hacking.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and writer of the Jack of Kent blog

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.