Senior managers at The Times knew one of their reporters had hacked the emails of a police blogger but withheld the information from a High Court judge, it emerged yesterday.
In a series of embarrassing admissions, James Harding, the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet, told the Leveson Inquiry that he had no idea that his paper was fighting an injunction preventing it from revealing the identity of the award-winning NightJack blogger and that he had been too busy to read an email confirming that a Times journalist had illegally accessed the author’s Hotmail account.
Mr Harding, who had been recalled to the public inquiry into press standards to clarify when he knew about the email hacking which took place in May 2009, insisted that he had not been aware of the full details of the incident until the last ten days after the paper went back through internal emails discussing its “outing” of Lancashire Police blogger Detective Constable Richard Horton.
But during uncomfortable testimony, the editor was confronted with an email copied to him which showed that at least two of his most senior staff - then managing editor David Chappell and then legal director Alastair Brett - knew by 4 June 2009 that Patrick Foster, then a 24-year-old former graduate trainee on The Times, had hacked Mr Horton’s emails to reveal his identity before later confirming that information via legitimate means.
Mr Brett wrote: “I first saw Patrick Foster on or about 19 May [about NightJack]. He then said he had gained access to the blogger’s email account and got his name. This raised immediate alarm bells with me... I told Patrick ‘never ever think of doing what you have done again’.”
The email was sent hours after a hearing before High Court judge Mr Justice Eady at which The Times opposed an attempt by Mr Horton to obtain an order protecting his anonymity.
During the hearing - and for the following ten days before Mr Eady delivered a judgment in favour of The Times - the paper failed to inform its barrister or the judge that it knew about the hacking, stating that Mr Foster had obtained Mr Horton’s identity as the result of a “self-starting journalistic endeavour” that was based on “publicly-available materials, patience and deduction”.
Mr Harding said he had been preoccupied with other news stories, including a Labour Party plot to unseat then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and did not recall reading the 4 June email. In a startling admission, the editor, who has been in post for four years, said he did not even find about the High Court hearing until after it had taken place.
He told the inquiry: “For me personally, the biggest shock was that The Times had taken the case to the High Court and I was not aware of this fact.”
Mr Harding admitted that he and other senior editors had not done enough to “drill down properly into what Mr Foster had done” and he now “sorely” regretted the intrusion into Mr Horton’s Hotmail account. He added that he had written to Mr Justice Eady apologising for the paper’s failure to disclose the information to him.
In reality, it emerged yesterday that managers at The Times were made aware of the hacking in late May 2009 after Mr Foster, who was later dismissed from the paper over an unrelated matter, approached the then home news editor, Martin Barrow, and asked to talk to him privately about a story, later referring to a “dirty deed”.
Evidence provided by The Times showed that Mr Brett, who left his post as legal director of The Times’ titles in 2010, was asked on six occasions by lawyers representing Mr Horton, who was disciplined by his force and ceased writing his blog, to respond to allegations that the detective’s identity had been revealed because of illegal intrusion.
When it was put to The Times directly that Mr Horton’s email account had been hacked, Mr Brett responded that this was a “baseless allegation”. Responding to a question from Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, about whether this had been a truthful response, Mr Harding responded: “No, I don’t think it was.”
The inquiry was told that Mr Brett had not revealed the information given to him by Mr Foster because he was prevented by a legal duty of client confidentiality.
Further alarm bells rang at The Times after it became clear on 14 June that Mr Eady was going to rule in favour of the paper, which subsequently decided to publish a story unmasking Mr Horton. In an email to Mr Brett, Mr Chappell wrote: “If we publish a piece by Patrick saying how he pieced together the identity... what happens if subsequently it is shown that he had accessed the files? Does our decision to publish knowing there had been a misdemeanour indicate complicity and therefore real embarrassment or does Eady’s judgment get us off the hook?”
Mr Harding said he felt the paper had “little choice” but to publish its story and said Mr Foster had been punished for his conduct with a formal written warning for gross professional misconduct - the strongest sanction below dismissal.
Timeline: Who knew what when
May 2009 The Times reporter Patrick Foster hacks into emails of the "NightJack" police blogger Richard Horton.
19 May Foster emails the news editor Martin Barrow asking for "quick chat" about a story.
20 May Foster emails Barrow to say that The Times' lawyer Alastair Brett is "on side".
30 May Foster emails Brett saying he can pass off a "whole lot" from publicly accessible information.
4 June Following the High Court hearing before Mr Justice Eady, Mr Brett sends a memo to the managing editor David Chappell and editor James Harding, admitting he saw Foster in mid-May. Mr Brett claimed Foster's account "raised alarm bells" and that he may have broken the law.
14 June Before the court is expected to rule on the attempt to stop the paper naming "NightJack", Mr Chappell asks the deputy editor Keith Blackmore if the legal process means they have to run the story. After the court ruling, Mr Chappell asks Mr Brett whether, if the paper runs the story by Foster, this will mean potential "complicity" charges for Foster, Mr Harding and Mr Brett himself.