The Times misled the High Court during its attempt to name a detective as the writer of an anonymous blog, the newspaper's then legal manager admitted yesterday.
The witness statement that The Times submitted to the court in 2009 was described as an "utterly misleading" and deliberately inaccurate legal defence, during questioning of the newspaper's former legal manager, Alastair Brett, which was largely conducted by Lord Justice Leveson himself. The statement was intended to help the former Times journalist Patrick Foster prepare for his defence. But Lord Justice Leveson said it hid the fact that he had illegally hacked into the email account of the Nightjack blog's author, detective constable Richard Horton. At an earlier inquiry hearing, Times editor James Harding publicly apologised to DC Horton for the paper's actions.
In 2009, The Times successfully fought DC Horton's attempt to keep his identity secret. At the time the newspaper's lawyers insisted that the blogger's identity had been uncovered through legitimate public sources, hiding details of the illegal access of an email account.
But Mr Brett told the Leveson Inquiry yesterday that Mr Foster had admitted hacking the email account before the court case, and that other senior executives at The Times knew the "legitimate access" defence was untrue. Details of other hacking attempts by Mr Foster, one when he was a student at Oxford, were also uncovered by Mr Brett. But he told Mr Horton's lawyers prior to the High Court case that any history of hacking was "baseless".
Mr Brett told the inquiry that Mr Foster had eventually found a "legitimate" way of unmasking Nightjack, butLord Justice Leveson attacked this description, telling him: "That's not accurate is it?" The former legal manager replied: "It's not entirely accurate, no."
When Mr Brett suggested Lord Justice Leveson was being "fantastically precise" in his analysis of the statement, he was told: "Oh, I'm being precise, because this is a statement being presented to a court."
Another part of Mr Foster's statement read: "At this stage I felt the blog was written by a real police officer." Again Lord Justice Leveson said "This is actually misleading, isn't it?" Mr Brett admitted it did not give the full story.
The inquiry chairman said that if Mr Justice Eady had been told the truth, The Times might not have won its case. He also reminded Mr Brett of the purpose of his inquiry, saying "The press rightly holds all of us to account: who is holding the press to account? That's the point."
A News International spokesperson said: "Today's testimony by The Times's former lawyer Alastair Brett was a painful reminder of an occasion when The Times's conduct failed to meet the high standards expected of this newspaper. As has been previously stated, the handling of the Nightjack case was deeply unsatisfactory. News International has changed governance and compliance procedures, including formalised guidance to the in-house legal team, to ensure that rigorous internal processes are adhered to in future."