Why the hacking of NightJack matters

The <em>Times</em> finally admits that a blogger's email account was hacked.

The Times of London is regarded as a form of flagship. For a few it is still the "paper of record" for the United Kingdom. And for News International and perhaps for Rupert Murdoch, it shows that they were able to promote a different and more responsible form of journalism than that practiced at its tabloid sister papers, with their grubby phone hacking, private investigators, and intrusive reporting.

But yesterday there was an admission. The Times admitted that a former reporter used computer hacking as part of an investigation. And not only did the reporter hack into a person's private email account, he also told his managers he had done so. Faced with this, the Times published the story based on that investigation even though they were "unclear" as to the role of computer hacking in the reporter's investigation.

You would have thought that the managers would have wanted to know the exact scope of the unauthorised access used in this investigation before they published what was a significant story -- a story that severely infringed someone's privacy. But the Times yesterday told us the managers simply did not know.

The story was about "NightJack", a popular and extremely well-written blog about the reality of police life. It was written under the pseudonym of "Jack Night" and described the goings on in the fictional world of Smallville and Bigtown. No one who read the blog at the time knew where it was set; indeed, part of its power was that it could have been any urban conurbation, and Jack Night could have been any policeman. Even those hostile to the police in general could gain an understanding of the predicaments which police officers routinely faced in their duties.

And so on 22 April 2009 Jack Night won the first Orwell Prize for blogging, an award hitherto given only to journalists and for books. For a blog to win a major literary prize was noteworthy and, naturally, there was particular interest that the author was not known. A young reporter at the Times then decided to see if he could work out the identity of Jack Night.

Was this a valuable journalistic exercise? Should newspapers be devoting resources to exposing the authors of blogs and those using social media more generally? In some circumstances this sort of exposure would be appropriate. For example, at Jack of Kent over a hundred commenters together identified Johann Hari as using "David Rose" as an alias which was used in a systemic exercise over many years to dishonestly promote his own reputation and to maliciously smear those with whom he disagreed.

Was there any similar public interest in exposing Jack Night? There was certainly a public interest in maintaining his blogs written under anonymity: the posts were fascinating and thought-provoking.

The reporter at the time claimed that there were two ways in which public interest was engaged. First he claimed that it could be that the Orwell Prize was duped by a fabricated blogpost. However, this was not convincing, as the Orwell Prize had openly said it had conducted its own checks and was completely satisfied.

The other public interest claimed (in the reporter's witness statement) was that "a policeman was revealing information he had obtained in the course of his police work and was also offering detailed guidance on how to frustrate the attempts of the police, in breach of the police Code of Conduct." (One rather suspects that this articulation of the public interest was informed by legal advice.)

It is not clear if this actually was the case. There is no reason why police officers cannot discuss their work in public, as the legions of police officers now on Twitter show. Jack Night did once post a delightful piece where he advises anyone arrested to do a variety of things, which would actually not be very helpful at all ("show no respect to the legal system or anybody working in it", was one remarkable tip). Some of the posts did feature incidents drawn from real cases, but it was never possible to identify any real incident unless one knew what to look for in an elaborate news archival search.

In fact, there was no public interest in identifying the author of the NightJack blog. The author was not engaged in any exercise of dishonesty or malice, systemic or trivial.

There was instead a public interest in having insightful and carefully-crafted blogs like this. And there was also a public interest in the principle of anonymity and protecting sources. Jack Night was his own source, and one would have hoped journalists and editors at the Times would have valued the importance of protecting anonymity when it is a pre-condition of publishing information in the public interest.

However, the Times decided to out the author against his will. But how did they identify him? The reporter in question provided a witness statement of some 56 paragraphs and with 56 pages of exhibits which showed a brilliant piece of intellectual detective work. Bits of NightJack blogposts were compared with snippets from obscure Ju-Jitsu sites and the Facebook page of the blogger's brother in Houston, Texas. There is also reference to non-internet sources, including the name the blogger used on a list of ex-directory numbers. Everything which could be known about the blogger from any source seemed to have been found out.

So what role did the computer hacking play in this investigation? The Times said yesterday that the role was "unclear" (but also somehow confidently asserted the investigation was "a legitimate process of deduction based on sources and information publicly available on the internet").

Perhaps we will never know. The newspaper is refusing to confirm or deny whether it has retained the relevant records of the incident and their press officer told me today that she has been "advised that we are making no further comments on this matter".

What the Times did decide, however, was that there was no public interest in the computer hacking which occurred. Once it was known that there had been the unauthorised access of an email account there was a disciplinary exercise, and the journalist was given a formal warning. In making that punishment the newspaper decided that there had been no public interest in the hacking.

But what makes this entire incident especially problematic is that before publication the Times had to resist an injunction application by the blogger to retain his privacy. It is not clear whether managers at the Times knew about their reporter's computer hacking before or after the hearing. In any case, it certainly was not told to the Court.

In my opinion, this has two highly significant implications for the High Court case on the injunction. First, the blogger's barrister was forced to concede crucially that the application would proceed on the basis that there had been no breach of any confidentiality or privacy right in the investigation. Second, and even more importantly, the judge determined at paragraph 33 that the blogger had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Would the Times still have won the case had the computer hacking been disclosed? This is possible, as the judge was persuaded that there was a strong public interest in identifying a blogging police officer. But we do not know. A breach of privacy by means of computer hacking is a serious matter, and it would certainly have been relied upon by the blogger's legal team had it been disclosed to them. It is a general principle of both law and common sense that wrongdoing is not rewarded.

It would appear that a decision must have been made by a senior manager at the Times not to tell the High Court and the defence about what was clearly a relevant and material matter to the injunction case. Even if the computer hacking was not known about on the date of the hearing of 4 June 2009 it was known by the date of the judgment of 17 June 2009, the day before the Times published its story.

So at some point before judgment was handed down the Times must have taken a decision not to disclose its knowledge about the computer hacking. It may well be that there was no strict legal duty to disclose that information -- such disclosure obligations can be technical in scope. But no sensible person would dispute that in a hearing of this kind that it really should have been made available to the judge and the applicant. There had been computer hacking in the investigation to uncover the blogger's identity, and the Times knew about it and said and did nothing about it.

And no one would ever have known had it not been for the Leveson inquiry. Even then, the Times played it down and it was left to others to make a connection. The newspaper's managers realised something wrong had happened but they never told or apologised to the blogger whose email account was hacked.

Overall, the hacking of NightJack matters not only because it tells us something about dark journalistic practices but that such practices are rarely willingly or openly acknowledged when they occur, even at flagship titles like the Times. Computer hacking was used, a person's privacy was invaded, a court was not told, but the Times published anyway.

 

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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser