The satellite broadcaster BSkyB has appointed outside lawyers to conduct a trawl of the emails of star journalists working on its rolling news channel Sky News to ensure that there is no evidence of stories being obtained by illicit news-gathering methods.
The development, days ahead of the broadcaster's annual general meeting, would enable the company to give assurances to its shareholders that the award-winning channel is free from the illegal practices uncovered at News International. BSkyB is independent of News Corporation but Rupert Murdoch's media empire is its largest shareholder, with a 39.1 per cent stake, and recently attempted to take complete control of the broadcaster.
The failure of that planned takeover was largely due to the controversy around News International, and Mr Murdoch's withdrawal of an £8bn bid for BSkyB coincided with the Prime Minister announcing a public inquiry into media standards.
Herbert Smith, Sky's longstanding external legal adviser, was called in to carry out the email audit at the request of John Ryley, the head of Sky News. Most controversially, the searches – which will cover all email traffic over the past five years – will concentrate on some half a dozen senior journalists who are best-known for breaking stories outside of the regular news cycle.
These correspondents are the most valuable players on Sky News's award-winning team. The targeted nature of the searches has caused some resentment and worry in the newsroom but Ryley has spoken privately to each of the journalists involved to assure them that they should not be concerned.
A BSkyB spokesman stressed that the exercise had not been prompted by any external request or by any evidence of wrongdoing. "There has been no suggestion of any impropriety at Sky News. We remain committed to the highest standards," he said.
The inquiry is in its early stages and is expected to take several weeks. The email audit follows a search of Sky News payment records made earlier this year by an internal audit team.
Although the search is seen by Sky as a matter of good governance, the exercise takes place against the backdrop of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into media standards. News Corp's Management & Standards Committee, which has been appointed to investigate illicit activities at News International, continues to use the legal firm Linklaters to study the emails of journalists at Mr Murdoch's British newspapers. The company has forwarded three million emails to police investigators.
Much of the MSC's attention has recently focused on The Sun, where the email correspondence of the news desk, senior journalists and departmental heads has come under scrutiny.