James Harding Leveson

James Harding: reporting was highly intrusive

Credit: Ian West/PA

The Times has apologised for hacking into a police officer's email account to out him as the author of the anonymous NightJack blog in 2009.

Emails read out at the Leveson inquiry today revealed that a Times journalist, named in court as Patrick Foster, accessed the email account of Lancashire detective Richard Horton and sought advice from the Times' legal manager at the time.

The Times went to the high court in 2009 to overturn an injunction preventing it from identifying the author of the blog. It argued at the time that the story had been obtained through journalistic endeavour and was in the public interest.

Editor James Harding, who was recalled by the Leveson inquiry today to give further evidence, said he had "learnt a great deal more" about the circumstances surrounding the story since his last appearance before the inquiry last month.

He said: "I sorely regret the intrusion into Richard Horton's email account by a journalist. Mr Horton and other people expect better of the Times. On behalf of the paper I apologise."

Harding said the evidence had only come to his knowledge recently.

"A great deal of what we now know is a result of pulling up emails, looking at the legal correspondence. All of this has been made available in the last week," he said.

The inquiry heard that Times legal manager Alastair Brett "tore a strip off Foster" when he learned of the email hacking and told him that "if he wants to pursue this story he has to do it by proper journalistic endeavour".

The emails read out showed that Foster sought to delay publication of the story to leave a space "between the dirty deed and publishing". Foster then came back to Brett and claimed he could identify Horton from "publicly accessible information".

Harding has written to Mr Justice Eady to apologise that the full details about how the story was obtained were not disclosed to the court in 2009. He said the case was taken to the high court without him – or the paper's deputy or managing editor – being informed beforehand.

The Times editor told the inquiry today: "To be absolutely clear, if Mr Foster had come to me and said that he had done this, we would have taken disciplinary action and I would have told him to immediately abandon the story."

He said he believed "strongly that this story had a public interest", but that he would not have approved Foster seeking unauthorised access to the email account if he had been made aware of the hacking beforehand.

"I can see now that we paid insufficient attention to this matter at the time," Harding added.

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