- By Region
The UK media regulator has launched an investigation into Sky News, a channel run by BSkyB, following its admission that it hacked the emails of individuals suspected of criminal activity.
BSkyB, 39.1 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, said this month it had authorised a journalist to access emails belonging to John Darwin, dubbed the “canoe man” because he faked his death in a canoeing accident, and his wife Anne.
Sky News insisted it was acting in the public interest in that it had shared information with the police, which led to a criminal conviction.
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 Keir 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.”
News of the probe will come as a blow to Mr Murdoch, who is due to testify at the Leveson inquiry into press ethics on Wednesday and Thursday. The regulator is weighing whether News Corp is a “fit and proper” owner of a broadcasting licence.
“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. We will make the outcome known in due course,” the regulator said.
Email hacking is a breach of the Computer Misuse Act, which does not have a public interest defence written into it. But David Allen Green, a media lawyer at Preiskel & Co, has said the Crown Prosecution Service would still have to consider the public interest when deciding whether to prosecute.
Mr Ryley, testifying at the Leveson inquiry on Monday, said: “It is highly unlikely in the future that Sky will consider breaking the law . . . I am pretty much ruling it out.
“Journalism is a tough business and at times we need to shed light into wrongdoing. There might be an occasion but I think it would very very rare.”
When asked whether he was aware of the Computer Misuse Act, Mr Ryley said: “I probably wasn’t aware of it as I should have been”. The same applied to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, he said.
Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, after revelations of phone hacking, but fallout from the scandal continues
Simon Cole, the managing editor who approved the hacking of the Darwins’ emails, is retiring after 17 years but Sky News has said this was “totally unrelated” to the story. The company also said it had authorised email hacking of a suspected paedophile and his wife in another case but that this did not lead to any publication or broadcast.
The broadcaster added that it had commissioned an external review of email records and an internal audit of payment records. The email review was nearing its conclusion and so far no grounds for concern had been found.
James Murdoch stepped down as chairman of BSkyB this month to prevent phone hacking and other scandals at News Corp tainting the UK satellite broadcaster.
News Corp’s fear is that Ofcom will force it to sell all or part of its stake to satisfy the regulator that it no longer has effective control. After the failure of Rupert Murdoch’s bid last year, and James Murdoch’s demotion on its board, the prospect of an exit that long seemed unthinkable looks possible, while the chances of gaining full control appear remote.