U.K. Regulator Investigates Sky News Over Email Hacking Revelations

6:51 AM PST 04/23/2012 by Stuart Kemp
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Satcaster BSkyB’s News operation faces inquiry over broadcasting rules breach for story using email interceptions.

LONDON – U.K. regulator Ofcom said Monday it is to mount an investigation into a Sky News journalist’s hacking of emails belonging to John Darwin, the man who faked his own death for insurance purposes and a subsequent trial of his wife Anne for deceptions.

The media regulator said it is looking into whether or not Sky News, operated by satcaster BSkyB, has broken broadcasting rules relating to fairness and privacy after using the hacked emails as the foundation for a story carried on air and on its website.

Earlier this month Sky News put its hands up and conceded that one of its senior executives had given the go-ahead to a journalist to hack into emails on two occasions because the action was in the public interest.

It has been pointed out, however, that intercepting emails is a prima facie breach of the Computer Misuse Act, to which there is no such defence written in law in the U.K.

An Ofcom spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter the investigation centres on rule 8.1 of the broadcasting code, which states that broadcasters must follow a series of standards and principles to avoid the unwarranted infringement of privacy in connection with how material to be used in broadcasts is obtained.

"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," said a spokesman for the regulator. "We will make the outcome known in due course."

A spokeswoman for the broadcaster said: "As the head of Sky News John Ryley said earlier this month, we stand by these actions as editorially justified … 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."

Sky News also pointed out that section 8.1 of the broadcasting code contains an explanation about how a broadcaster can justify a privacy infringement if it believes there is a public interest defence.

Ofcom’s website carries the code in full.

"Where broadcasters wish to justify an infringement of privacy as warranted, they should be able to demonstrate why in the particular circumstances of the case, it is warranted … If the reason is that it is in the public interest, then the broadcaster should be able to demonstrate that the public interest outweighs the right to privacy. Examples of public interest would include revealing or detecting crime …,” the code states.

The story saw Sky News journalist Gerard Tubb access emails belonging to Darwin and his wife Anne when she was due to stand trial for deception in July 2008.

Tubb later produced a story for the Sky News channel and website in which he quoted from emails that had been written by Darwin to his wife and to a lawyer.

Sky News has subsequently defended its actions arguing that police were made aware of the source of the material and that running the stories was justified in the public interest.

 

Appearing Monday in front of the U.K. government-funded Leveson Inquiry into media ethics, Ryley said he was "pretty much ruling it out" that the channel would engage in similar behavior in the future. "It's highly unlikely in the future that Sky will consider breaking the law."

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