This week James Harding endured every editor’s nightmare: he appeared on the front-page of his own newspaper, The Times, apologising (£) for an embarrassing episode in which serious errors were compounded by legal advice of the worst kind.
Mr Harding admitted to the Leveson inquiry into press standards that he had apologised to a High Court judge after reaching the conclusion that Mr Justice Eady had been misled by lawyers working for The Times.
In 2009, one of the paper’s reporters had hacked into the email account of a serving police officer, a detective called Richard Horton, who had been publishing an illicit blog under the alias ‘Nightjack’. I am no expert but, if true, that would seem to me to be an illegal act.
However, The Times’s legal manager kept quiet about that, and went so far as to challenge an injunction which protected the identity of the blogger. In a landmark ruling, Mr Justice Eady lifted the injunction after being told falsely that the reporter had deduced “Nightjack’s” identity using information in the public domain. But the barristers who addressed the judge had been completely innocent. Someone else was to blame.
I do not know Mr Harding well. However, since he became editor of The Times five years ago, I do know that his newspaper has become widely respected, as well as being a good read.
And although I have had my own high-profile differences with The Times going back more than a decade, I had a tinge of sympathy for Mr Harding as he became headline news for the wrong reasons this week.
For Mr Harding’s mistake was not of his own making. His error was, as a busy newspaper editor, to rely heavily on his company’s then legal manager, Alastair Brett, for advice and guidance.
My past experiences of Mr Brett have left me in no doubt that he is a man devoid of any principle. In fact, I would go further: he has a character flaw – not a good one for a lawyer – in that he is fundamentally dishonest.
It was this flaw that allowed him to concoct, in the words of Baldrick from the Blackadder series, a “cunning plan”. Despite Mr Brett’s early challenges to the methods deployed by Patrick Foster, the reporter who had hacked the police officer’s email account, later email exchanges between Mr Brett and Mr Foster tell a different story. They reveal how Mr Brett encouraged Mr Foster to lie about the origins of his information about “NightJack” and to pretend he had got them from legitimate means.
On May 30 2009, Mr Foster emailed Mr Brett to say that he could "do the whole lot" (ie the story) from publicly-available information. The legal manager replied: "Brilliant — that may be the golden bullet.”
Mr Harding informed the Leveson inquiry that, incredibly, he was not told his newspaper was going to the High Court to fight for the right to name Mr Horton until after the hearing had taken place on June 4, 2009.
And he went on to admit that he was "shocked" when he discovered in recent days that Mr Horton’s legal team had suggested six times that his emails had been hacked and that Mr Brett had repeatedly brushed it aside as a "baseless allegation".
Most right-thinking people will have been horrified by the revelations about Mr Brett, but they did not surprise me in the slightest. For he has spent years, even decades, trying to defend the indefensible.
I detailed some of Mr Brett’s unsavoury practices in my book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times. It was first published in 2005, fully six years after The Times, under the editorship of Peter Stothard, had embarked on a campaign to discredit me because of my then role as Treasurer of the Conservative Party.
Those who want to learn about the full extent of the unscrupulous and, at times, illegal activities of Mr Brett and The Times team of yesteryear should read my book, but I will offer a flavour of some of the things that Mr Brett was prepared to do.
As long ago as 1991, Mr Brett fell foul of a High Court judge for the way he handled a libel action against The Sunday Times brought by Carmen Proetta, who had witnessed the shooting by the SAS of three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar in 1988.
Mr Brett was so keen to discredit Ms Proetta as a witness that he tried to hide the fact that he had paid for a convicted criminal, Joseph Wilkins, who was awaiting trial on drugs charges, to testify against her.
In his judgement, Mr Justice Drake strongly criticised Mr Brett and his legal team: “It is conceded that Wilkins is a man with an appalling record, and it appears from documents that I have seen that Wilkins asked for payment in return for giving the statement and that the defendants, after the statement was given, did pay £2,000 to Wilkins’s sister at his request, which they falsely described as a consultancy fee.”
After I had sued The Times for defamation in 1999, Mr Brett’s true colours soon emerged as he worked with Tom Baldwin, the paper’s cocaine-addled deputy political editor, and others to try to discredit me. Once again, I will provide a flavour of the tactics Mr Brett was willing to employ.
During my dispute with The Times, I found out that the paper was willing to pay private investigators to “blag” confidential information about me, and even to pay the legal costs of at least once suspected culprit. Blagging involves impersonating someone else on the phone to obtain information.
However, it was in its dealings with Jonathan Randel, then an analyst with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), that Mr Brett “excelled” himself. Randel had leaked confidential information about me, and others, to a freelance journalist who, in turn, passed this to The Times.
As my legal action developed, Mr Brett was behind the payment of £6,000, plus expenses, to Randel, even thought the lawyer knew both the analyst and The Times were acting illegally – Randel was later drummed out of the DEA and jailed for a year for his crimes. Mr Brett made sure that the US Attorney never got to interview those at The Times who were involved, one of whom was Mr Baldwin.
Mr Brett, who had been disingenuous towards the US court in a statement in which he defended Randel as a “principled young man”, again emerged from the whole episode with egg on his face.
The judge concluded that Randel had committed a “very serious offence” that could have endangered the lives of DEA agents. In fact, I discovered that Mr Brett was so rattled by the whole episode that he took out costly outside legal advice when he became concerned that he and The Times might be included in the prosecution of Randel by the United States Department of Justice.
In my blog last November that previewed the Leveson inquiry, I concluded: “I confidently predict that it will be some sections of the ‘quality’, as well as the tabloid press, that will be hanging their heads in shame.”
Yet, despite being proved right this week, I now feel sorry for Mr Harding that he has become yet another victim of the dishonesty of Mr Brett, who is utterly unfit to practice as a lawyer. Mr Harding has not emerged unscathed from this episode but, unless there are further revelations on his “watch”, he should survive this unfortunate episode. I thought that his behaviour in front of Lord Justice Leveson was impressive.
Nevertheless, there are further questions here that should be answered, and it is clear that there should be a full police investigation of this mess. We need to know whether the custodian of propriety at the so-called “Newspaper of Record” was indeed acting throughout this shabby business in the way in which he now stands charged, or whether he has simply got a bad press. Whichever, we deserve to know.
And what ever happened to Mr Brett and Mr Baldwin? The Times finally accepted that it was unwise to employ a dodgy lawyer as its legal manager and acrimoniously parted company with him some time ago. And Mr Baldwin went on to become… Ed Miliband’s Director of Communications, a job he still holds to this day. How the mighty have fallen.
* Lord Ashcroft’s book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times can be downloaded from his website: www.lordashcroft.com