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Police investigating allegations of email hacking at the Times

The Metropolitan Police (the Met) is investigating claims that a reporter at the Times newspaper hacked into an email account to unmask an award-winning anonymous blogger.03 Feb 2012

The Met responded to Labour MP Tom Watson's request that it look into the matter after Watson raised concerns about the activity following evidence given to the Leveson inquiry into press standards. Watson has said the Met's investigations could throw up evidence of perjury and of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

"I write to reassure you that the concerns raised within your letter are under investigation and officers from Operation Tuleta are dealing directly with the victim," Detective Superintendent John Levett at the Met said in a letter sent to Watson.

Operation Tuleta was launched by the police last summer to investigate "a number of allegations regarding breach of privacy ... including computer hacking" that were outside of the remit of the Met's separate investigation into phone hacking. 

News International chief executive Thomas Mockridge told Leveson that a Times reporter had been issued with a formal written warning in 2009 after admitting to gaining unauthorised access to a computer. News International is the publisher of the Times.

In a letter sent to the Met, Watson said the admission showed the paper had defended legal action against it on a "factually incorrect" basis.

In 2009 the Times won a High Court ruling enabling it to publish the name of an anonymous blogger known as 'NightJack'. Richard Horton, a Lancashire police detective constable, had argued that the court should prevent the paper naming him as the blogger. He unsuccessfully claimed the paper owed a duty to keep the information confidential, and that he had a right to privacy.

In the case the Times argued that the reporter "had been able to arrive at the identification by a process of deduction and detective work, mainly using information available on the Internet".

Although Mockridge said the journalist had defended his actions as being in the public interest during an internal disciplinary hearing, the paper had not claimed such a defence during the High Court proceedings, Watson said. In a letter outlining his concerns to the Met, Watson said that the reason for this was because management at the paper "clearly did not" believe the actions were justified in the public interest.

"As the story was eventually published the day after the court handed down judgment, this can only mean that The Times knew their defence was factually incorrect while the litigation was live or during the period the paper was waiting for the judge to deliver the judgment," Watson said in his letter.

"Further, the management team appear to have withheld knowledge of a crime being committed from the directors of parent company, News Corp. In his [Leveson] evidence of 10th November 2011 – one month after Mr Mockridge admitted knowledge of email hacking to a judge, Mr James Murdoch denied knowledge of it to Parliament. In answer to a question Mr Murdoch Jnr said: 'I am not aware of any of the computer hacking that you have talked about in the past'," the letter said.

"It is clear that a crime has been committed – illicit hacking of personal emails. It is almost certain that a judge was misled. In turn, James Murdoch has misled a parliamentary inquiry into where Parliament had been previously misled by executives of News International. A journalist and unnamed managers failed to report the crime to their proprietor or the police. This runs counter to the assurances of Rupert Murdoch that News International takes a 'zero tolerance approach to wrongdoing'. I must ask that you investigate computer hacking at The Times. In so doing you will also be able to establish whether perjury and a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice have also occurred," Watson's letter had requested.

Under the Computer Misuse Act it is an offence for a person to knowingly cause "a computer to perform any function with intent to secure access to any program or data held in any computer, or to enable any such access to be secured" without authorisation.