A FORMER reporter with The Sun has been cleared of hacking into an iPhone to access saucy text messages between a married TV star and a PR agent.
Ben Ashford, of The Chase, Coulsdon, was accused of trawling through more than 1,000 text messages and explicit photos on the woman's iPhone, despite knowing it had been stolen.
But the 35-year-old was found not guilty at the Old Bailey on Wednesday, having previously told the court: "I don't want to go down in history as a liar."
Ashford claimed during his trial that he had been dragged through the courts because of the "zeal" to secure convictions of journalists in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
The court heard how, in October 2009, he was dispatched by The Sun's assistant news editor Will Barker to collect the phone, containing lewd text messages and pictures.
The initial tip-off came from Sameena Rashid, who said her friend had found the handset on the floor outside the exclusive Circle Club in Manchester while having a cigarette two days earlier.
Ashford took the phone home and analysed the contents, drawing up an 18-page dossier of the relationship between the star and the woman - both of whom cannot be named - to send to Mr Barker and assistant news editor Steve Kennedy.
The reporter, who started his career on the Croydon Advertiser, was accused of trawling the phone, knowing that it was stolen and the owner had not given authorisation.
But Ashford told the court: "I thought at the time there may well be consent.
"When I accessed it, I thought there was a pretty good chance this could be a person wanting a story to come out."
Ashford said he was told to return the phone after seeking legal advice, after which the theft was reported and Ms Rashid accepted a police caution.
But the incident was dredged up two years later, when Ashford's emails to the newsdesk were handed to police in the wake of the phone hacking scandal involving former Sun and News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson.
A jury of five men and seven women took just under four hours to find Ashford not guilty of possessing criminal property and accessing the phone without authority.
Ashford, who was axed by the Daily Mail after his arrest and now works for a news agency in Plymouth, put his head in his hands and took a deep breath when the verdicts were delivered.