Former Sunday Mirror investigations editor Graham Johnson avoided jail today after coming forward to police to admit phone-hacking.
Johnson was sentenced to two months imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, after positive character references from hacking victims group Hacked Off and Nick Davies, the journalist who exposed the phone-hacking scandal.
Johnson, 46, who worked at the Sunday Mirror between 1997 and 2005 and the News of the World before that, hacked a phone to investigate claims that a soap star was having an affair with a gangster in autumn 2001.
After journalists for Mirror Group Newspapers were arrested in March last year, Johnson came forward to confess to a "short and intense" period of hacking lasting three to seven days.
The Old Bailey heard today that Johnson had hacked the phone over a period of three to seven days and listened to ten to 13 messages a day during that period.
The court heard that Johnson abandoned the story – but still got a joint byline – when the investigation moved to "monitoring" a hotel.
Avtar Bhatoa, for the defence, said Johnson had previously avoided celebrity stories and worked on this investigation "reluctantly", adding: "After a few days he stopped and as you have heard he actually walked off this story."
The defence told the court Johnson had contacted the victim of phone-hacking, telling them: "I'm sorry I can't undo what happened."
Bhatoa told the court Johnson's offence falls into an "altogether lower category" than previous cases brought to the Old Bailey.
He pointed out that Johnson's single charge did not relate to multiple victims being targeted over a number of years or on an "industrial scale".
The court was also told that Johnson had not also been involved in paying public officials, did not deny the offence and was acting on the instructions of "senior management".
Bhatoa said that Johnson had been waiting for his case to come to Westminster Magistrates' Court for 21 months after his confession and that he had lost work – Johnson has published a number of book and worked on documentaries – as a result.
The defence told the court Johnson, a "conscientious man", has "gone a long way to making amends", pointing to his apology to the victim.
Johnson received positive character references from a Panorama journalist as well as Davies, who was in the court, and Hacked Off, which had representatives present.
The court was told that Hacked Off "commend" Johnson for coming forward and "pray" that him coming forward will encourage others to do so.
The defence suggested that Johnson's case should not have been brought to the Old Bailey, saying a lower court would have been sufficient.
Bhatoa said: "This is as minor a case of phone-hacking as perhaps there can be."
Bhatoa argued that Johnson's case was "truly unique" because no other journalist sentenced for hacking had come forward.
He highlighted the example of former News of the World and Sunday Mirror journalistDan Evans, who gave evidence in the hacking trial of Andy Coulson and was given a suspended prison sentence in July after he pleaded guilty to two charges of conspiring to hack phones.
Bhatoa said: "Mr Evans only came clean after his collar was felt. Mr Johnson called the police himself and, unlike others, he never prevaricated."
Johnson was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended for a year, 100 hours of unpaid work and £300 prosecution costs.
Judge Brian Barker said the matter must have "weighed deeply" on his conscience for some time.
He said: "The public regard these sorts of offences – quite properly – very seriously. You are in a different category but the fact of the matter is you allowed yourself in 2001 to behave in this way.
"You could have refused but you did not. You involved yourself in an intense but short period of phone hacking. It is to your credit that you ceased fairly quickly and put that behind you.
"You were directed by others. This was a single offence. You ceased quickly and you regarded this as something of a grey area. This was some time ago. You reported yourself and it has weighed deeply on your conscience for the intervening period."