Is Hacking Sometimes In the Public Interest?
Sky News, which is partially owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, said on Thursday that one of its senior executives had authorized a reporter to hack into email on two separate occasions, both of which were “in the public interest.” The announcement indicates that “Britain’s hacking scandal has spilled into television news” after numerous revelations of newspaper reporters hacking into voice and email accounts, says the New York Times,
Sky News operates separately from News Corp.’s troubled newspaper business and has indeed reported extensively about the phone hacking scandal. Company officials have defended the hacking as strictly for “journalistic reasons — in pursuit of a story that benefited the public interest”; in one case, Sky News’s hacking had actually aided a police investigation. A thorough review of email accounts and other records has so far not turned up any “evidence of impropriety in Sky’s reporting practices.”
One case involved a reported hacking into the emails of a suspected pedophile. The other case involved hacking into emails that a reporter suspected had been used by John Darwin and his wife, Anne. Known in tabloids as the “canoe man,” Darwin faked his death in a canoeing accident in 2002. He moved to Panama and collected £500,000 in life insurance in collusion with his wife. In 2007, John Darwin moved back to Britain and lived in a secret apartment in his old house; in December of that year, he turned himself into London police, saying that “I think I may be a missing person.” But he and his wife were soon charged with fraud, after it was revealed that Anne Darwin had cashed in their life insurance policy and been photographed with an estate agent in Panama.
Sky News’s acknowledgement of hacking occurred only days after James Murdoch resigned as chairman of Sky’s parent company, British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), which is 39.1 percent owned by News Corp.. Sky News officials say that there is “no link” between Murdoch’s resignation and the hacking revelations. Indeed, according to the New York Times, these were only made public after a recent inquiry by the Guardian.
Tom Watson, a Labour Party member of Parliament, discounted Sky News’s insistence that the hacking was done “in the public interest.” As he said in the BBC:
“The chair of BSkyB has to say something on this and reassure viewers that this has not been going on more widely. There are cases where the public is best served with journalists breaking the law, but it has to be done in extremis, and I am not sure whether it was in these two cases.”
But Peter Preston, a former editor of the Guardian, said that the hacking of the Darwins’ email was in the public interest:
“I don’t see this as a story in the News of the World type at all.
“Nobody is saying there was not some real crookery here that the police weren’t properly informed of.”
He added: “It is when you get into the more seedy areas of stories, which don’t have any public merit at all, the difficulties start.”
Can an illegal practice like hacking be, at times, “in the public interest” and if so, who determines when it is and why?
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