Nightjack was an award-winning blog which ran from 2008-2009, written by an anonymous British police officer. In 2009, in what they claimed to be the public interest – but which struck many observers as an exercise in needless spite – The Times newspaper published an article exposing the author as Detective Constable Richard Horton.
Since then there have been claims and counter-claims about how that story came to press, culminating in the recent revelation that the Times likely misled both the High Court and its own readers.
We now know how Times journalist Patrick Foster knew Nightjack’s identity: he hacked his email account. What is interesting – and where considerations of computational complexity come in – is what happened next. Having found Nightjack’s identity through illegal means, Foster then approached Times lawyer Alastair Brett, and was advised to set to work on reproving Nightjack’s identity, purely through legally available sources. He was indeed later able to do this, with the result that the Times went to court and successfully fought off an injuction barring them from exposing Nightjack. But, critically, during the hearing, they omitted all mention of the original email hack, and spoke solely of Foster’s subsequent reproof.
Brett explained the thinking behind this advice in his testimony to the ongoing Leveson enquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press:
“If he or any other journalist could identify Nightjack through legitimate sources and information in the public domain then we’ve got what I felt was a perfectly legitimate public interest story…
“He had to demonstrate to me that he could do it legitimately from outside in, and that’s what he did. He persuaded me that he was able, that the only person who could have been Nightjack was DC Horton…
“Rightly or wrongly I had believed you could separate the earlier misconduct by Mr Patrick Foster and you could then say that once he had done this legitimately then that could be presented to the court perfectly properly as he had done it legally. Now I accept that you say that the two are inextricably intertwined, but that, if I may say so is a subjective judgement. I happened to take the view that you could separate out the one from the other.”
Robert Jay QC, cross-questioning, makes the observation that the reproof was “a much easier exercise”, now that he “had the advantage of knowing the answer to his question”.
Of course this is true, but one might ask how much of an advantage he had. Is this a subjective judgement? Perhaps Foster could have determined the answer, legally, from the outset. In order to have a leg to stand on, the minimum he needed to establish was that Nighjack’s identity was in legal P, something which could discovered legally in polynomial time. All the reproof showed, however, was that it was in legal NP (as well as being in illegal P, of course). Are the two equal…? (And if they are, what is the polynomial mark-up…?)
David Allen Green has been monitoring the case since the beginning, and it was he who likened the identification to solving a maze ‘from the inside out’ (P) rather than ‘from the outside in’ (NP). He has an excellent run-down of the whole affair so far, at The New Statesman. (If you scroll down to the discussion of Oliver Kamm’s blogposts, you will also see how the Times went on to mislead its readers.)
The latest developments are that the Times’ editor James Harding has written to the hearing’s original judge to apologise, and that Nightjack is suing the Times for breach of confidence, misuse of private information and deceit. He is claiming aggravated and exemplary damages.
You can also watch Alastair Brett’s very uncomfortable evidence to the Leveson enquiry here. It begins at 72′, and the real drama starts at 129′, in which Lord Leveson accuses the Times of providing ‘utterly misleading’ evidence to the Court, an accusation which Brett essentially admits.