'Unmasked' police blogger escapes further action

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The Independent Online

No further action will be taken against a policeman who was unmasked after targeting the force and Government ministers in an anonymous online blog, police said today.

Richard Horton, who serves with Lancashire Constabulary, used the name of Night Jack to post messages about his police work and his opinions on matters of political controversy.

The 45-year-old detective constable's identity was exposed after the High Court yesterday refused a temporary injunction to prevent The Times newspaper from naming him.

A spokeswoman for Lancashire Constabulary said that Det Con Horton, who is understood to be an officer with the force's Eastern and Pennine divisions, had been spoken to and received a written warning but would not be disciplined further "unless anything else was to come out".

She added: "We have conducted a full internal investigation and the officer accepts that parts of his public commentary have fallen short of the standards of professional behaviour we expect of our police officers."

Refusing to grant Det Con Horton anonymity at the High Court yesterday, Justice Eady said that "blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity".

Justice Eady also ruled that any right of privacy on the part of the blogger would be likely to be outweighed by a countervailing public interest in revealing that a particular police officer had been making such contributions.

Det Con Horton's counsel, Hugh Tomlinson QC, submitted that there was a public interest in preserving the anonymity of bloggers.

He said that the thousands who communicated via the internet under a cloak of anonymity would be "horrified" to think that the law would do nothing to protect their identities if someone carried out the necessary detective work to unmask them.

While acknowledging that might be true, the judge said that there was still a need to demonstrate that there would be a legally enforceable right to maintain anonymity, in the absence of a genuine breach of confidence.

The mere fact that Night Jack wished to remain anonymous did not mean either that he had a reasonable expectation of doing so or that The Times was under an enforceable obligation to him in that respect.

He added: "Those who wish to hold forth to the public by this means often take steps to disguise their authorship, but it is in my judgment a significantly further step to argue, if others are able to deduce their identity, that they should be restrained by law from revealing it."

He said that Night Jack's blog mostly dealt with his police work and his opinions on a number of social and political issues relating to the police and the administration of justice.

The blogger expressed strong opinions on political issues and had criticised a number of ministers.

The judge said that it had always been apparent that if his employing police authority became aware - as it now had - that one of its officers was communicating to the public in such a way, there would be a significant risk of disciplinary action.

Indeed, this was one of the main reasons why Night Jack was keen to maintain his anonymity.

Rejecting the argument that all the blogger's readers needed to know was that he was a serving police officer, the judge said that it was often useful, in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source.

"For so long as there is anonymity, it would obviously be difficult to make any such assessment.

"More generally, when making a judgment as to the value of comments made about police affairs by 'insiders', it may sometimes help to know how experienced or senior the commentator is."

He did not accept that it was part of the court's function to protect police officers who were, or thought they might be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors.

The public was entitled to know how police officers behaved and the newspaper's readers were entitled to come to their own conclusions about whether it was desirable for officers to communicate such matters publicly.

The Night Jack blog could not be accessed today. A message on the site's homepage read: "The authors have deleted this blog. The content is no longer available."