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.

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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder