The head of Sky News admitted yesterday that the satellite broadcaster had authorised one of its reporters to hack into computers in order to access the emails of people they suspected of criminal activity, including John Darwin, the canoeist who faked his own death in 2002.
The network's northern correspondent Gerard Tubb was allowed to hack not only Mr Darwin's email account but that of a suspected paedophile and his wife, in an apparent contradiction of the Computer Misuse Act.
John Ryley, head of Sky News, claimed the actions were justified "in the public interest" and that information it had provided to Cleveland Police had led to the conviction of Mr Darwin's wife Anne, who was jailed for six and a half years for deception.
Mr Darwin disappeared after being seen paddling out to sea, but was later photographed in his Panama bolthole with his wife, who it emerged had cashed in his life insurance policy.
Although her husband admitted fraud, Mrs Darwin protested her innocence. But having hacked into an email account in the name of "John Jones", Sky News ran stories on the couple's "masterplan" and quoted directly from the emails. After obtaining valuation of a Panama property, Darwin apparently emailed his wife to say "you're a filthy rich gringo".
But Ryley issued a statement yesterday saying the hacking had been "editorially justified". He said: "We do not take such decisions lightly or frequently. They require finely balanced judgement based on individual circumstances and must always be subjected to the proper editorial controls."
Sky News, which is 39 per cent owned by News Corp, has not been linked to the phone-hacking scandal which has been so disastrous to Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
His son James Murdoch resigned his position as chairman of BSkyB earlier this week because his past role as executive chairman of the News International newspaper division had made him a "lightning rod" for hacking stories and had the potential to damage BSkyB.
In order to separate Sky News from the hacking scandal, Ryley commissioned a review of the email accounts of its star reporters to ensure that none had been using illicit newsgathering methods.
Ryley said yesterday that the review, which is being carried out by Sky's longstanding external legal advisers Herbert Smith, was ongoing but that "no grounds for concern have been found".
Although no one has been arrested for the computer hacking, there is no public interest defence in the Computer Misuse Act. The development follows the revelation that The Times, another part of the Murdoch news operation, was found to have hacked into the emails of the blogger Nightjack, who the paper outed as the serving police officer Richard Horton.