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Sky News admits two counts of computer hacking

Brazens it out with public interest defense

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Sky News, which is partially owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, has admitted that it twice authorized journalists to hack the email accounts of people it was researching for stories.

The first case took place in 2008 and involved the case of John Darwin, who was dubbed "Canoe Man" by the British press after he disappeared in one during a jaunt on the North Sea in 2002. Darwin faked his death so that his wife Anne could collect the life insurance money, and stayed hidden for five years before turning himself in to police in London, claiming he was suffering from amnesia.

Darwin's story soon fell apart under examination – not least when the press uncovered a photograph, published online, of him and his wife with a Panamanian real estate agent. A Sky News reporter asked for and was approved to hack into a Yahoo! email account thought to be used by the Darwins, and uncovered evidence that his wife was in on the scam, which was handed over to the police and used in the trial of Anne Darwin.

"We stand by these actions as editorially justified," said Sky News in a statement. "As the Crown Prosecution Service itself acknowledges, there are rare occasions where it is justified for a journalist to commit an offence in the public interest."

According to The Guardian, the second case of hacking took place when Sky News was investigating a man and woman under suspicion of pedophilia. In that case no story was published, presumably because no evidence could be found, but the Sky News statement makes no mention of this.

Both cases are fairly obvious breaches of the Computer Misuse Act, but journalists do have a get-out clause in that crimes can be committed if they are later found to be in the public interest. In practice, most news outlets interpret this to mean anything that the public is interested in, and the courts seldom disagree.

However, the news comes at an awkward time, considering the widespread phone hacking that has been exposed in other titles in the Murdoch stable. Sky News defended its actions and said a full review had taken place.

"We do not tolerate wrong-doing. That's why we commissioned, at our own initiative, reviews of payments and email records at Sky News," a company spokesman said. "I'm pleased to say those reviews did not reveal any illegal or unethical behavior." ®

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