Barristers clash as former reporter for The Sun's trial nears end
The jury at the trial of former Sun journalist , Ben Ashford, heard closing argument from both the defence and prosecution this morning.
Ashford, 35, faces two charges in relation to the possession and accessing of data from a mobile phone that was stolen in 2009 from the Circle club in Manchester. The iPhone, the court has heard, contained "saucy" text messages and "explicit" pictures being exchanged between its owner and a well-known TV presenter, neither of whom can be named for legal reasons.
Ben Ashford arrives at court
Closing for the prosecution, Peter Wright QC told the jury that the former journalist had not set out to commit an offence but instead by seeking a "sensational story" had lost his focus and shown no regard for the privacy of those involved or the way the phone had been obtained.
The barrister told the court that neither Ashford or "anyone else in the journalistic empire that was the Sun" gave any thought to the victim of the crime; she was "collateral damage, sacrificed on an altar", he suggested, noting that "the law applies to us all", including the press.
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Wright asked the jury to consider that any normal person would ask if the phone was stolen. "The question would be on the tip of your tongue," he said.
The QC suggested that Ashford had not asked the contact who gave him the device because "he did not want to know the answer" and was only concerned with accessing the information on the phone, which included its owner's recent medical history and intimate details of her "vulnerabilities".
The Crown barrister also criticised the former journalist's legal team for not handing over a tape of evidence to the prosecution before the trial began. "This is not someone giving evidence in good faith," he said. "This is someone on a damage limitation exercise."
In closing, the prosecution QC invited the jury to consider that Ashford's defence was a "charade, a calculated attempt to conceal the truth" and asked them to find the defendant guilty as charged as, he suggested, the evidence had shown that the former journalist had from his own choice chosen to "disregard the law".
Orlando Pownall QC, for the defence, then rose to give his closing address. He asked the jury to consider that despite the case "not being about murder or terrorism" there had been much time and expensive resources spent on it.
The defence barrister asked the jury to consider if, the "messianic zeal" with which the case had been prosecuted, reflected the impact of the recent phone-hacking trial, and suggested that, as a journalist, his client had been "swept up in the tide of an investigation that had nothing to do with him".
Pownall told the jury that he believed a "real injustice" had been done to his client and asked the jury to show compassion for what Ashford had already been through.
He asked the court to note that the student, Samina Rashid, who originally gave the former journalist the phone, had only received a caution for her part in the offence. He noted that reporters - "some of whom are in court today" were people that "thrive on the woes of others." He told the court that there was now the spectacle of "journalists feeding on their own." Ashford, he said, was merely the "fall guy" for the actions of others, describing the charges against his client as "inappropriate".
The defence QC then challenged the prosecution claim that "all people are equal before the law", saying that the "arbitrary decision" to charge Ashford only happened because he was a journalist.
Pownall noted that his client had been in constant touch with the Sun's news desk, which had instructed him to retrieve the iPhone, yet no-one there, whom he described as the "directing minds" of the affair, had been prosecuted. "The Crown cannot have it both ways," the defence barrister asserted..
Pownall then told the jury that his client had no knowledge that the phone in question had been stolen and the fact that Rashid had given him her name and address before inviting him into her home had allayed any suspicions he might have had. He suggested to the jury they could not be "sure" that Ashford knew the iPhone was stolen and therefore they should acquit on that basis alone.
Defence counsel finished his speech by drawing attention to Ashford's previous good character and the "golden thread" of British justice that it was for the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt."
"It is not for us to prove anything" he said. "The right verdict on each count is not guilty," he told the jury, and asked them to return that verdict on both charges.
The trial will continue this afternoon with the judge's summing up and the jury will then retire to consider their verdict.
The defendant continues to deny the charges.