Ben Ashford, a former journalist with The Sun expressed his relief today as he walked free from court after a jury found him not guilty of two charges related to a stolen mobile phone that came into his possession in 2009.
Ashford, 35, told reporters outside the court: “I’m immensely relieved that the jury have reached a just verdict. I’d like thank my family, friends, and my legal team for their unwavering support, and my thoughts remain with my friends and former colleagues who face a similar ordeal.”
The journalist, who testified in court that the charges had wrecked his dream move to America and left his career in “tatters”, had been arrested in 2012 after his former employer, News UK, handed over a cache of emails to police investigating misconduct in the tabloid press.
The emails showed, the prosecution alleged, that in 2009 Ashford had knowingly received a mobile phone stolen from a Manchester nightclub and accessed text messages and pictures sent between the phone’s owner and a well-known TV presenter. He was subsequently charged with offences under the Proceeds of crime act and the Computer misuse act.
The crux of the case, the presiding judge Brian Barker QC told the jury, was not the defendant’s actions, which were agreed on by all sides, but his state of mind when he accessed the data.
Ashford testified that as he had been instructed by senior staff at The Sun to trawl the phone he belived they would have checked with their in-house lawyers that his actions were legal.
The journalist also said that he believed that the phone’s owner may have arranged for The Sun to obtain the phone so she could leak the story of her relationship with the TV personality without revealing herself as the source of the story, which, the reporter said, was something he had came across before in his career.
Questions have already been raised over the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to charge Ashford, especially as the 2009 investigation into the theft led only to the student who gave him the phone being cautioned for “theft by finding”.
The journalist’s barrister Orlando Pownall QC, criticised the “"messianic zeal" with which the case had been prosecuted and suggested that the only reason Ashford had been prosecuted was because he was a journalist and had been "swept up in the tide of an investigation that had nothing to do with him".
The jury took just four and a half hours to reach their unanimous verdict.