Ian Burrell: Intrusion is unpleasant – but sometimes it's justified


Intrusive as it sounds, a stranger being able to hack into a private email account and root around for information may sometimes be in the public interest. And journalists urgently need a public-interest defence so they can do just that.

In the wake of revelations yesterday that Sky News had broken into computers in the hope of finding material to put on air, a diversity of voices were raised in favour of the broadcaster. Hacked Off and Index on Censorship, two organisations which have not been slow to condemn journalistic malpractice, called for a public-interest defence to be introduced into the Computer Misuse Act of 1990.

Currently, a news organisation which is charged under that legislation – and Scotland Yard's Operation Tuleta team is investigating possible breaches – has little opportunity to justify its actions.

Media lawyers I spoke to yesterday said news organisations would be relying on the common sense of the Crown Prosecution Service in not putting a case before a jury that would be thrown out despite the lack of a public-interest defence. A generation ago, the civil servant Clive Ponting was charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking documents about the Falklands War. The jury acquitted him despite the judge advising it that "the public interest is what the government of the day says it is".

With the material obtained by Sky having apparently been used in a successful prosecution, a jury might take a similarly dim view of an action against a news organisation which had followed its editorial procedures and believed it was acting in the public interest. Certainly it should have the legal right to make such an argument in court.