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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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.