The Times settles Nightjack claim for £42,500 plus costs

Why there should now be a "Nightjack" test for proposals for press regulation.

The New Statesman can reveal that the Times has settled the civil claim brought by "Nightjack" blogger Richard Horton for £42,500 plus legal costs. 

Horton brought his civil claim for breach of confidentiality, misuse of private information and deceit after it emerged that his identity had not been uncovered by some brilliant piece of detective work by a staff journalist, as was maintained by the newspaper at the time, but had been established instead by unauthorised access to the blogger's email account.

There will now be a statement in open court by the Times before the end of this month.

As there is now a criminal investigation related to this matter - a journalist has been been arrested and a former in-house lawyer has been interviewed under caution - not a great deal more can be said about the circumstances of the unauthorised access.  It is a matter entirely  for the criminal courts to determine whether there is any criminal liability arising - a settlement of a civil claim does not and should not prejudice any criminal investigation.  Certainly nothing in this post should be taken to suggest any criminal liability of any person or entity connected with the case.

And given the criminal investigation, there is little which those involved can currently say about this particular case.  Horton's lawyer Mark Lewis tells me only that whilst he is delighted that his client has won substantial compensation, nothing can put Horton back in the position that his identity was secret. 

And Horton says, "I am happy to have settled with the Times and I can now put that incident behind me and get on with my life".

 

A "Nightjack test" for press regulation?

However, there is perhaps a wider issue about the case apart from the now settled civil claim and the current criminal investigation. 

The Nightjack case raises a general point relevant to the debate on press regulation which will follow publication of the recommnedations of the Leveson Inquiry.

Quite simply, without the Leveson Inquiry's effective use of statutory powers, the Nightjack incident would never have come to light.  It is thereby a perfect example of what remains hidden with "self-regulation", still the the preferred model of many in the newspaper industry.

Here it is important to note that the story only emerged when the New Statesman analysed witness statements submitted by various figures from News International in response to formal (and legally backed) requests for evidence (the full account is set out here). 

Even then, News International was initially reluctant to give a full account, and it was only when both the editor and the former legal manager of the Times were summoned to give oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on the incident that the fuller picture emerged of what had actually happened.

As Prof Brian Cathcart, director of Hacked Off, told me earlier today:

The Nightjack affair is a clear case of a newspaper behaving unjustly and  it would never have come to light but for the scrutiny of the Leveson Inquiry, a body with real legal clout.

No voluntary, self-regulatory regime would ever have unearthed the facts.

This is further proof that we need an effective press regulator that has teeth and is genuinely independent the press industry as well as of government.

Tom Watson MP agrees:

I hope the Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet now realise that without the statutory powers of the Leveson Inquiry none of this whole sorry saga involving Times Newspapers and News International would ever have seen the light of day.

One test - which perhaps should be called the "Nightjack test" - of any non-statutory proposals for press regulation will be how an envisaged regulator can obtain relevant documentary and witness evidence from an unwilling news title. 

Would some non-statutory regulator really be able to obtain information from a title akin to that which the Leveson Inquiry was able to prise from News International in respect of the Nightjack incident?

For many it is difficult to see how any contractual or voluntary basis for press regulation could pass this important "Nightjack test" - it would merely (again) be regulation at the fiat of the regulated.

And unless any post-Leveson press regime can pass such a "Nightjack test" then the old pre-Leveson abuses could well continue.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

 

POSTSCRIPT

Richard Horton has now made the following comment below the line:

None of the above would have happened without the patient, detailed forensic dissection of the facts by David Allen Green at the New Statesman. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted from my life and after 3 years of not writing anything worth a damn, I am back writing for pleasure again. Leveson was undoubtedly the lever but without David's work at the fulcrum, I would still be sat here 3 years later strongly suspecting wrongdoing but entirely without evidence.

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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.