Senior Sun staff 'in the loop' over stolen phone court told.

Former Sun journalist Ben Ashford took the witness box at the Old Bailey this afternoon and told the jury that "senior staff" at the newspaper were aware he was accessing data from a mobile phone that had been stolen in a nightclub.

Ashford, 35, is on trial over two charges in connection with the 2009 theft of the mobile phone and the subsequent accessing of highly personal text messages and pictures between a Manchester woman and a well-known TV performer, neither of whom can be named for legal reasons.

Ashford told the court that student Samina Rashid had contacted the paper to say she had found an iPhone outside a Manchester nightclub and that it contained texts and pictures that implied the TV performer, referred to in court as "celebrity A," had been involved in an illicit affair with the phone's owner.

The reporter testified that he had been tasked by his news desk to meet Rashid and collect the phone which he did later in the evening. Ashford said that the visit was no secret and "almost the entire hierarchy of the Sun knew the phone had been accessed" adding "I trusted them to know what they were doing."

The journalist then testified that he recorded part of the meeting with Rashid - a practice he said was "routine at the Sun, and all national papers".

The jury was given a transcript of the recording in which Ashford asked Rashid where she had obtained the phone.

"I was trying to find out if there was any veracity to all this" the reporter told the court adding: "I was trying to get her to provide the details".

Ashford said that if he had thought the phone was stolen he "would have dropped it like a hot brick" but he believed that this was "inconceivable" as Rashid had invited him into her home rather than "meeting me in a pub or at in some back alley".

He then told the court he took the phone back to his flat and phoned the Sun news desk, which told him to check the information stored on it and write up what he found in a memo.

The journalist said that he knew there would have been a lawyer on duty that night and assumed that they would have been consulted before he was asked to access the phone's data. Emails shown to the court, the defence said, showed that very senior staff at the newspaper were aware of Ashford's activities "they were in the loop" the defendant told the court.

The reporter said it was only on the next day he found out that the phone was stolen property, news that left him "shocked and anxious".

After speaking to one of the newspaper's lawyers, Ashford said he decided to return the phone to it's owner and contacted her saying he had the phone and had "looked at the material" but assured her no story would be published as a result.

"She was quite grateful and relieved" the journalist said. Ashford then met with a friend of the phone's owner and handed over the phone along with his business card.

The fact the phone had been stolen was a "story killer" the reporter said adding again that he had received the phone "in good faith" and had no suspicion it had came to him as a result of criminal activity.

Ashford said he gave the police a statement a few weeks later but was not asked about accessing the phone's data as the officer who questioned him said he was only interested in finding out who stole the phone.

The reporter was only arrested in 2012 when News International's management and standards committee gave the Metropolitan police a number of emails about the incident.

Court then adjourned until Monday when Ashford will be cross-examined by the prosecution.

The defendant denies all of the charges, the trial continues.

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