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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.