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 “insufficient consideration” was notwithstanding the separate emails of Brett and Chappell, both emphasising the significance of the hack. Interestingly, at the same meeting on 15 June 2009, Harding instructed that disciplinary proceedings be launched against Foster for a “highly intrusive act”. So it would appear that Harding somehow regarded the hack as being very serious as an employment issue, but somehow not of particular weight as an editorial issue.
Nonetheless, Harding later insisted at the Leveson Inquiry:
If -- if it had been the case that Mr Foster had brought this to me and said, “I’d like to get access to Mr Horton’s email account for the purposes of this story,” I would have said no.
If Mr Brett had come to me and said, "Mr Foster has done this; can he continue to pursue the story?”, I would have said no.
If Mr Brett had come to me and said, “Do you think we should go to the High Court, given the circumstances of this story?”, I would have said no.
However, in my opinion, there was no good reason why Harding could have not said “no” at the editorial meeting of 15 June 2009 in light of the emails of Brett and Chappell, both emphasising the significance of the hack.
Eady’s judgment was formally handed down the following day and the Times website exposed Richard Horton to the world as the author of NightJack. The story was also published in the print edition of 17 June 2009.
It was one month to the day from when Horton’s email account had probably been hacked.
19 June 2009 to October 2011 -- the immediate aftermath
The outing of Richard Horton was controversial. To many observers, it seemed a needless and spiteful exercise by a mainstream media publication. The public interest arguments appeared hollow: no one else had been able to match information in the generic posts with any real-life cases. The supposed “advice” of the blog to those arrested was playfully ironic rather than subversive of policing. There just seemed no good purpose for the outing, and the public benefit of an outstanding and informative police blog had been pointlessly thrown away.
Even other journalists were unimpressed. As Paul Waugh of the London Evening Standard wrote at the time:
In NightJack’s case, I still cannot believe that the Times decided to embark on a disgraceful and pointless campaign to out him. Having found some clues about him, the paper inexplicably decided that this was some great issue of media freedom. The Times’s legal team then refused to back down rather than lose face.
The damage that the Times inflicted was far worse than just threatening one honest copper with the loss of his career. It undermined any policeman who wanted to speak off the record, the lifeblood of decent crime reporting. It also undermined any whistleblowing blogger, any public servant who wanted to tell it as it is from the front line, without the filter of a dreaded “media and communications office”. Maybe one day the Times will apologise, but knowing newspaper office politics as I do, I suspect it never will.
To which the Times columnist and leader writer Oliver Kamm replied, unaware of the true circumstances of what had happened:
I’m stupefied at the way Waugh has depicted this. Be aware that when he says, “The Times’s legal team refused to back down,” what he means is that the Times decided to defend itself against a legal attempt to muzzle it. Its reporter had discovered the identity of the police blogger (Richard Horton), through public sources and not by subterfuge or any invasion of privacy. Horton sought to protect his anonymity, and in my opinion he had no plausible grounds for doing so other than his own convenience.
If the Times had pried into Horton’s family life (of which I have no knowledge whatever), then that would have been wrong. But it didn’t. Horton wrote his blog, expressing partial political opinions, using information gained from his employment as a public servant. I once worked in public service (at the Bank of England), and I consider there is an ethos of confidentiality and political neutrality that you do not breach. Of course it was in the public interest to disclose Horton’s identity when he left clues to it. I’m surprised that Waugh retails uncritically the complaint of the freemasonry of bloggers, who assume that the constraints that we journalists observe ought not to apply to them.
Kamm added in another post:
A Great Historical Question to Which the Answer is No (“Was NightJack hacked into too?”)
[. . .]
[A]s Mr Justice Eady remarked in court, Foster uncovered Horton’s identity “by a process of deduction and detective work, mainly using information on the internet”.
We’re journalists: we do this sort of thing.
The Times had not only hoodwinked Mr Justice Eady; it had now hoodwinked one of its own leader writers.
The Waugh/Kamm exchange illustrates essentially the state in which the story of NightJack’s outing remained for over two years: lingering concerns and confident counter-assurances, depending on whether one thought the Times had done a good thing or not.
In the immediate aftermath, Horton underwent disciplinary proceedings and received a written warning from Lancashire Police. He did not return to blogging. Foster also received a written warning for the hack.