The Times faced renewed scrutiny this morning over the role of email hacking in its exposure of the identity of anonymous police blogger NightJack.
The discussion of the issue at the Leveson Inquiry into the hacking scandal comes two days after Labour MP Tom Watson asked the Met Police to investigate the newspaper following its admission that it had illegally accessed the email account of the award-winning NightJack blogger, the Lancashire police detective Richard Horton, in 2009.
The paper first exposed his identity in June 2009 after it successfully overturned an interim privacy injunction at the High Court.
In a letter sent to the Leveson Inquiry after he gave evidence last week, which was read out at the inquiry this morning, Times editor James Harding said the paper ‘strongly believed’the story was in the public interest.
“When the reporter informed his manager that in the course of his investigation he had, on his own initiative, sought unauthorised access to an email account he was told that if he wanted to pursue the story he had to use legitimate means to do so,’said Harding.
‘He did, identifying the person at the heart of the story using his own sources and information publicly available from the internet. On that basis we made the case in the High Court that the newspaper should be allowed to publish in the public interest.
‘After the judge ruled that we could publish in the public interest we did.”
Harding said the paper also addressed concerns about the conduct of the reporter, former media correspondent Patrick Foster, who was later dismissed over an unrelated incident.
Foster, who has since worked as a freelance for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, was formally disciplined for email hacking, according to The Times editor.
Harding said the incident also ‘informed our thinking in putting in place an effective audit trail to ensure that in the future we have an adequate system to keep account of how we make sensitive decisions in the news gathering process”.
‘This was an isolated incident,’he insisted, adding: ‘I have no knowledge of anything else like it.’
Giving evidence to the inquiry this morning, New Statesman legal blogger David Allen Green said it was ‘odd’that Harding did not provide the information given in the letter in his witness statement to the inquiry last week.
Asked if the paper had used information gained from email hacking to stand up its story, Green said that he had ‘not made that allegation”.
But he added: ‘It seems to me that if you have used an email hack as part of an investigation you can’t artificially pretend you never did that. You will use that information as part of solving the puzzle which you have set yourself
‘What seems to me to have gone wrong is that at the time it wasn’t very clear to the managers the role of the hacking that had taken place, and the Times said itself that they are unclear as to the role – actual role – although they have assured that the identification had been above board.
‘My one concern is that this should have been put to the court at the injunction application.”
On Monday, prominent anti-phone-hacking campaigner Tom Watson said: “It is clear that a crime has been committed – illicit hacking of personal emails. It is almost certain that a judge was misled…
“A journalist and unnamed managers failed to report the crime to their proprietor or the police. This runs counter to the assurances of Rupert Murdoch that News International takes a ‘zero tolerance approach to wrongdoing.'”