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Ofcom probes Sky News over Canoe man email hacks

Watchdog mulls public interest defence

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Broadcaster Sky News is being investigated by Ofcom over its admission that it hacked into emails for a story in 2008.

"Ofcom is investigating the fairness and privacy issues raised by Sky News' statement that it had accessed without prior authorisation private email accounts during the course of its news investigations," the regulator said in an emailed statement.

"We will make the outcome known in due course."

Following a Guardian newspaper article, Sky News released a statement at the start of this month acknowledging the computer invasion, but claiming that the intrusion had been justified as it was "in the public interest" and that the hacking had led to criminal charges being brought.

The emails in question were those of "canoe man" John Darwin, who disappeared in a canoe on the North Sea in 2002. Darwin faked his own death so that his wife could claim his life insurance money and pensions, staying hidden until he turned up five years later pretending he'd had amnesia.

"The police described material supplied by Sky News as pivotal to the case," the broadcaster said in its statement. "Mrs Darwin received a jail sentence of six-and-a-half years. More than £500,000 of assets have since been recovered and funds returned to the insurance companies and pension funds which were victims of the fraud."

The Guardian article also mentioned a second case of computer hacking, this time while investigating a man and woman suspected of paedophilia. There wasn't any story published after that investigation and Sky News didn't mention that hack in its statement.

Today, Sky News reiterated its stance on the hacking.

“As the head of Sky News, John Ryley, said earlier this month, we stand by these actions as editorially justified," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

"The Crown Prosecution Service acknowledges that there are rare occasions where it is justified for a journalist to commit an offence in the public interest.

"The Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer told the Leveson inquiry that 'considerable public interest weight' is given to journalistic conduct which discloses that a criminal offence has been committed and/or concealed.”

The question for Ofcom will be its interpretation of Rule 8.1, which states that "any infringement of privacy in programmes... must be warranted".

The courts usually allow for invasions of privacy by journalists where the information sought is "in the public interest", which was often interpreted as anything anyone might be interested in, although the widespread phone-hacking scandal has seen a lot of criticism for legal leniency with the media.

However, written into that rule as an example of the public interest is "revealing or detecting a crime", which is exactly what Sky News claims it was doing.

It's still bad timing for parent BSkyB however, as the media giant is currently being assessed as to whether its owners and directors are fit to own a broadcast licence. BSkyB is of course 39 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose newspaper empire is at the centre of the phone-hacking scandal. ®

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