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04.13.12

Nightjack Policeman Sues Times of London Over Alleged Computer Hacking

Policeman Richard Horton, who was outed by the Times of London as the author of the blog Nightjack and later disciplined, is seeking damages. Peter Jukes reports on Murdoch’s widening computer hacking scandal.

Now even the mighty Times of London is brought to book.

More hacking allegations are emerging against News Corp. in the United Kingdom, extending from phones to computers, and from the tabloids to the quality broadsheets. The widening hacking scandal—which first erupted with the revelation last summer that the Sunday tabloid News of the World had hacked the phones of hundreds of victims, and broadened earlier this year with allegations that its sister daily paper, the Sun, had made substantial payments to a network of corrupt public officials—now seems set to tarnish the upmarket historic paper of record. A case lodged in the high court by a policeman seeks redress for alleged computer hacking and misuse of personal data by The Times.

The police officer in question was previously known as Jack Night, whose vivid, insightful writing on policing in modern Britain won the first ever Orwell Prize for a blog in April 2009. The Nightjack blog described crime and everyday life in the generic urban environments of “Smallville” and “Bigtown,” and was, by necessity, written under a pseudonym because of the sensitive nature Jack Night’s police work.

However, within a month or so of winning the prize, DC Richard Horton of the Lancashire Police received a phone call from a Times reporter asking him to confirm he was Nightjack and saying the newspaper planned to publish his real identity. As Horton wrote soon after, “This was easily the worst afternoon of my life.”

Horton tried to stop the outing of his real identity and placed an injunction on The Times. His lawyers argued in the high court that the proposed article was a breach of confidence and wrongful disclosure of public information. But the newspapers’ legal team contended that Nightjack was identified by details. Justice David Eady ruled in The Times’ favour, adding that no blogger could have a reasonable expectation of anonymity in the circumstances.

The article was published, Nightjack’s blog deleted, and Horton was disciplined by Lancashire Police. The matter seemed closed.

But two years later, in written testimony before the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into the practices, ethics, and culture of the press, a lawyer for News International, News Corp.’s U.K. subsidiary, admitted an isolated case of email hacking at The Times. On the witness stand, the newspaper’s editor, William Harding, confirmed (PDF) one unauthorized incident of email account hacking by a junior reporter in 2009, but said the reporter had been disciplined and subsequently left the paper.

Astute watchers tallied the dates to the Nightjack outing. David Allen Green, the New Statesman legal correspondent who was part of the Orwell Prize jury, appeared at the Leveson Inquiry to explain that the hacking in question probably concerned the outing of Richard Horton.

Harding was recalled to the witness stand and testified that his reporter had not deduced Nightjack’s identity from publicly available details but by hacking the blogger’s Hotmail account. In one of the testiest exchanges so far in public inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson rebuked the Times’ veteran legal manager, Alastair Brett, over the way The Times had misled the high court.

The Daily Beast spoke to a senior member of the Times editorial team who was present during the initial decision to identify the police blogger. The decision to out Nightjack had been taken in the “public interest,” the source said, because Horton was a paid public official, and victims of crime could be identified in his blog.

However, the Times source conceded that outing Horton only made victims of crime in his blog even more identifiable and complained that the paper’s legal advice at the time was “crap.” Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, there is no “public interest” defense for computer hacking.

A spokesperson for News Corp. confirmed to The Daily Beast on Friday that the legal action was taking place but refused to comment further on the case.

Although Horton has lodged a civil case against the paper seeking aggravated damages for alleged breach of confidence, misuse of private information, and deceit, the Times’ admission of email hacking also will be of interest to the Metropolitan Police, who are conducting three separate investigations into News International. While Operation Weeting has made 23 arrests over alleged phone hacking and Operation Elveden around the same number over alleged payments to police officers, Operation Tuleta was set up last year specifically to look computer hacking.

The decision to out Nightjack had been taken in the “public interest” because Horton was a paid public official, and victims of crime could be identified in his blog.

“Email hacking could be worse than phone-hacking,” Tom Watson, the Labour member of Parliament who is a member of the committee looking into the hacking scandal, said several months ago.

For David Allen Green, the legal correspondent who did much to investigate the Nightjack case, that the Times hacking took so long to come out and was only done so through the Leveson Inquiry is cause for concern in itself.

“If this is true, one had to wonder what was happening elsewhere in News International,” he told The Daily Beast. “The management and legal failures similar to those which occurred in respect of Nightjack and similar unlawful invasions of privacy are unlikely to be have been detected in other titles.”