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Why the Times should apologise over NightJack

The emerging questions over the hacking of a blogger's email account.

It is today reported that Tom Watson MP is calling for James Harding, the editor of the Times, to return to the Leveson inquiry to answer questions about the hacking of the email account of NightJack.

But what should the questions be?

Over at Jack of Kent I have started to put together a detailed chronology of the hacking of the NightJack account together with information about other computer hacking. Looking carefully at what can so far be established, there are a number of questions which at least could usefully be posed to the editor of the Times.

It may be that the specific hacking incident is less important than the decisions -- taken by managers and executives -- which followed. After all, the journalist admitted the incident to his managers, and he was disciplined. There is no point making him the scapegoat for this, even though there might be a natural tendency for culpable senior figures to shift the blame downwards.

On the basis of the information so far collected, it would appear to me that three particular managerial or editorial issues need to be addressed.

First, why were NightJack's lawyers and the High Court not informed of the hack? The Times has admitted that it knew of the hack before publication. As the story was eventually published the day after the court handed down judgment, this can only mean that the Times knew while the litigation was live or during the period the paper was waiting for the judge to deliver the judgment.

In either case, it would appear to me that the fact of the computer hacking really should have been disclosed. There can be no doubt that the blogger's lawyers would have sought to rely on it. As it was, the blogger's lawyers were forced to concede that there had been no invasion of privacy or breach of confidentiality.

Second, there does seem to be uncertainty as to who within News International knew about the incident and it seems odd that it was not disclosed to the Department of Culture Media and Sport select committee in November 2011 .

Here dates are important. The hacking incident was disclosed to the Leveson inquiry in those three witness statements dated 14 October 2011. (One of these statements -- from the CEO of News International, Tom Mockridge -- contains a material inaccuracy which was corrected by a further witness statement of 16 December 2011, which refers interestingly to "further enquiries".)

But on 10 November 2011 James Murdoch appeared at the DCMS committee and was asked a number of detailed questions by Tom Watson about computer hacking. It is clear from the answers that Murdoch either was completely unaware of the computer hacking incident (notwithstanding the three witness statements submitted to the Leveson inquiry only the month before) or was being very careful not to tell the committee about it when being directly asked.

Third, it is clear that the Leveson inquiry has so far been told relatively little about the 2009 computer hack. It was only by comparing four witness statements that one could work out any detail about what happened. No mention was made in those statements as to whether the hack had been in relation to a published story, or (perhaps significantly for Leveson) that there had actually been privacy litigation relevant to the story which was published.

Given that following the coverage here, and by David Leigh at the Guardian, the Times volunteered such details in an article published at the end of last week, one wonders why these significant details could not have also been provided to the Leveson inquiry itself.

The Times is a great newspaper, with many excellent columnists and outstanding reporters. But something very wrong happened when NightJack was outed, and this wrong may well have been compounded by subsequent decisions made by senior managers. There could be a perfectly satisfactory explanation as to all what happened, but it would be good to hear it either at the Leveson inquiry, or elsewhere.

And there should be an immediate apology to the blogger whose email was hacked. The Times itself ruled internally that the hack equated to professional misconduct and that it should not have happened. The paper should have promptly informed the blogger and apologised. It is difficult to see any good reason why that was not done.

The Times should now apologise to the blogger without further delay.

 

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