The Times and NightJack: an anatomy of a failure
The story of how, in a string of managerial and legal lapses, the Times hacked NightJack and effectively misled the High Court
(This post sets out what Lord Justice Leveson has since described as a "mastery analysis" at paragraph 1.33 of his Report.)
The award-winning “NightJack” blogger was outed in 2009 by the Times of London. At the time the newspaper maintained that its controversial publication of a blogger’s real identity was based on brilliant detective work by a young staff journalist. However, it is now clear that the blogger’s identity was established by unethical and seemingly unlawful hacking of the blogger’s private email account.
If the hack was not bad enough, the Leveson Inquiry has also heard how the newspaper in effect misled the High Court about it when the blogger sought an urgent injunction against his forced identification. The blogger lost that critical privacy case and it is possible that the case could have been decided differently if the Times had disclosed the hack to the court.
The following is a narrative of what happened. It reveals a depressing sequence of failures at the “newspaper of record”. Most of the sources for this post are set out on the resource page at my Jack of Kent blog.
Background: the police blogger who won the Orwell Prize
NightJack was an outstanding blog and its author was one of the best the blogging medium had ever produced. The blog was an unflinchingly personal account of front-line police work set in the fictional -- and generic -- urban environments of “Smallville” and “Bigtown”. The world it described was very different from the glamorous police shows on television. Readers who otherwise would not know what police really did and what they had to put up with could now gain a proper understanding of the modern police officer’s lot. The blog’s narrator -- “Jack Night” -- could have been any police officer working under pressure in any town or city.
NightJack was a perfect example of the value of blogging, providing a means -- otherwise unavailable -- by which an individual could inform and explain in the public interest.
After he was outed, the author explained how the blog was started and how NightJack gained a good following:
It all began around December 2007 when I began to read blogs for the first time. I read blogs by police officers from all over the UK. They were writing about the frustrations and the pleasures of what we all refer to as “The Job”. As I read, I began to leave comments until some of those comments were as long as the original posts. Reading and responding made me start to consider my personal feelings about “The Job”. So it was that in February 2008, I made a decision to start blogging for myself as NightJack. That decision has had consequences far beyond anything that I then imagined possible.
My head-on accounts of investigating serious crime and posts on how I believed policing should work within society seemed to strike a chord and my readership slowly grew to around 1,500 a day.
And then, a year after the blog started, something happened that made NightJack one of the best-known blogs in Britain.
February to April 2009: NightJack and the Orwell Prize
In February 2009, the blogger learned that his work had gained formal recognition:
[U]nexpectedly, in February 2009 I was longlisted for the Orwell Prize.
In March 2009 NightJack made it on to the shortlist.
I realised that what had begun as a set of personal ruminations was achieving a life of its own. I cannot deny that I was happy with the recognition, but at the same time I had the feeling that the Orwell Prize was a big, serious, very public event. Win, lose or draw, my blog was about to move out of the relatively small world of the police blogosphere and get a dose of national attention.
On 22 April 2009 NightJack became the first winner in the new blog category of the Orwell Prize, regarded as the leading prize for political writing in the United Kingdom. The judges were clearly impressed; they said of NightJack:
Getting to grips with what makes an effective blog was intriguing -- at their best, they offer a new place for politics and political conversation to happen.
The insight into the everyday life of the police that Jack Night’s wonderful blog offered was -- everybody felt -- something which only a blog could deliver, and he delivered it brilliantly.
It took you to the heart of what a policeman has to do -- by the first blogpost you were hooked, and could not wait to click on to the next one.
However, the winning blogger was keen to maintain his carefully protected anonymity. He arranged for the prize to be collected by a friend and for the £3,000 to be donated to a police charity. He later wrote of the attendant media interest:
The morning after I won the award, there was a leader in the Guardian and a full page in the Sun. The readership went up to 60,000 a day (more people have read NightJack since I stopped writing it than ever read it whilst it was live). My email inbox had offers from newspapers, literary agents, publishers and people who wanted to talk about film rights and TV adaptations.
There was a lot of attention heading towards my blog and I was nervous that somehow, despite my efforts to remain unknown, my identity would come out. As an anonymous blogger, I was just another policing Everyman but if it came out that I worked in Lancashire, I knew that some of my writing on government policy, partner agencies, the underclass and criminal justice would be embarrassing for the Constabulary. Also, as an anonymous police blogger I was shielded from any consequences of my actions, but without the protection of that anonymity there were clearly areas where I would have to answer for breaches in the expected standards of behaviour for police officers.
During the next month I began to relax a little. It felt like everything was going to work out and my identity would stay secret. I contacted one of the literary agents and said that the blog was not for sale at any price and that I wouldn’t be trading on the Orwell Prize.
There was press and TV attention but nobody seemed to want to publicise who was behind my blog.