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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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