John Witherow arriving at Leveson inquiry

Sunday Times editor John Witherow arriving at the Leveson inquiry

Credit: Ian West/PA Wire
Editor of the Sunday Times John Witherow told the Leveson inquiry today "it is vital" to maintain journalism in the public interest even if this involves the use of subterfuge, as he confirmed that 'blagging' was used in relation to Gordon Brown in 2000.

In written evidence to the inquiry Witherow said: "Investigative journalism can sometimes stretch rules when the newspaper is seeking to expose wrongdoing, criminality and unethical behaviour."

"In order to do that, we may, paradoxically, employ methods that on the face of it appear unethical.

"For example, the use of subterfuge can involve a journalist posing as someone else, lying to an informant in order to get to the truth and secretly taping them.

"I believe it is vital that we maintain this form of journalism, as long as it is in the public interest, because it produces some of our most significant reporting which can affect the way the country is governed."

But in oral evidence to the inquiry he added that there is a "clear understanding between journalists and investigators" in that they "must abide by law and code" and the newspaper's journalists need to "make sure they behave in a proper way".

He also confirmed as correct, when asked by counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay, that he "draws the line at phone hacking".

The inquiry heard about past use of subterfuge and 'blagging' in relation to the newspaper's 2000 investigation into a "property deal" involving then chancellor Gordon Brown, which News International issued a statement on in July last year.

In the statement it said it had "pursued this story in the public interest" and "followed the PCC code on using subterfuge". The newspaper also reportedly said in an article last year "such activities would have been legal as the story was clearly in the public interest".

The inquiry heard today that the newspaper had used a businessman to "check purchase prices" with lawyers, but that he did so in his own name.

Witherow told the inquiry he felt "there was some subterfuge there as he didn't declare he worked for the Sunday Times".

In a separate matter, Jay told the inquiry today that the Abbey National had also written to Witherow "alleging someone had called their Bradford call centre six times pretending to be Mr Brown".

When asked by Jay today "did someone on your behalf pretend to be Mr Brown to blag information", Witherow responded "yes". He confirmed that this was, as Jay put it to him, "someone else" and did not involve the businessman previously referred to.

Earlier in his evidence Witherow was also asked about a request by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2002 that he attend an interview under caution in relation to a story published by the newspaper on Lord Levy, a request which was rejected on behalf of the Sunday Times editor.

When asked why it was rejected, Witherow told the inquiry it was based on the judgment of Mr Justice Toulson on what was said to be an unsuccessful injunction application by Lord Levy.

"We didn't think it was justified, there was a public interest defence," Witherow explained. He said he heard nothing further on the matter.

During his appearance before the inquiry Witherow said "a lot" has been learnt from the sessions so far, with further steps taken by the Sunday Times to keep track of its use of subterfuge.

"What we do now is have a paper trail to ensure if we need to go back on this we have records. Whenever we discuss this we have minutes and can track ... that's something I think that's come out of this."

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