Ofcom to investigate Sky News over email hacking

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The broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, is to investigate Sky News’s admission that it broke the law by hacking into the email account of the “canoe man” who faked his own death.

The  head of Sky News, John Ryley, told  the Leveson Inquiry yesterday that an assurance given by the broadcaster last year that there was  no wrongdoing  and that no-one at Sky News had engaged in illegal interception of communications was not true.

Mr Ryley said the statement, issued by a lawyer representing the broadcaster , was “very regrettable”.

The media regulator will now look at whether Sky News broke broadcasting rules which relate to privacy.

 The broadcasting code is specific on unwarranted infringements of privacy. A statement from the regulator said “Ofcom is investigating the fairness issues raised by Sky News’ statement that it had accessed, without prior authorisation, private email accounts during the course of its investigations. We will make the outcome known in due course.”

The inquiry heard yesterday that one of its reporters, Gerard Tubb, had hacked into emails belonging to the “canoe man” John Darwin.  The email hacking in 2008  had been given full approval by senior Sky News executives.

Although Darwin had already pleaded guilty to charges of deception and a passport offence following his faked death and fleeing to Panama, Mr Tubb learned that the prosecution lawyers would not be accessing email accounts belonging to Darwin and his wife Anne as part of their case.  Aware of Mr Tubb effectively taking on a quasi police role, Sky executives joked about him winning the “Queens Police Medal” and referring to him as “inspector”. The information Sky news obtained from the email hacking was passed to the police and was only broadcast after the trial had finished.

Mr Ryley also described a further case of illegal access by Mr Tubb which related to a woman, Lianne Smith,  who had killed her own children.  She was the partner of a suspected paedophile, Martin Smith, who was on the run from the law and living in Spain. Lianne Smith smothered her two children after the arrest of her partner.

Mr Ryley told the inquiry that Mr Tubb believed his investigations had thrown up failings by the care authorities centred on the couple’s daughter, Rebecca, who had already been the subject of a protection order. Mr Tubb was given permission to hack into the mother’s account by his boss, Simon Cole.  The green light for the hacking was delivered with the words “legitimate public interest. Good hunting.”

However the inquiry heard from Mr Ryley that Sky News did not find enough information to warrant criticism that the authorities had failed in the care of the daughter.

As the head of Sky News, Mr Ryley was direct in his apologies. He told the inquiry that Sky News had broken the criminal law and added it was “ highly unlikely “ that the news broadcaster – which is partly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire – would ever authorise email hacking or other subterfuge in the future.

In mitigation, Mr Ryley said Sky news was a “non-stop” instant broadcaster. He said journalism was “at times a tough business and at times we need to shed light on wrong-doing”.

Following the evidence given to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the ethics and practices of the press, a  spokeswoman for Sky News 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.”