The UK communications regulator Ofcom this week announced that it is investigating alleged email-hacking by journalists at Sky News, a satellite news channel controlled by Rupert Murdoch. The investigation raises interesting issues regarding the role of online privacy in news reporting; in particular whether privacy should trump the public interest in media led investigations into criminal activity.
Ofcom announced its investigation after a Sky News representative admitted to hacking the email accounts of John Darwin, who faked his own death in order to claim life insurance, and later reappeared living abroad. In addition to email-hacking, Sky News also admitted to posting a hacked voicemail message from Mr. Darwin’s wife on its website. These hacking admissions were made at the wide-ranging Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and culture, which was prompted by last year’s UK press phone-hacking scandal.
Under UK law, email hacking is a violation of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, and may trigger criminal sanctions. In addition, Ofcom’s broadcasting code – Rule 8.1 – provides that: "Any infringement of privacy in programs, or in connection with obtaining material included in programs, must be warranted." The potential sanctions for breach of Ofcom’s code range from a warning, to a fine, to revoking a broadcasting license in the most serious circumstances.
For its part, Sky News argues that its actions were "editorially justified" since there are rare instances when it is defensible for a journalist to commit an offense in the public interest, in this case the detection of insurance fraud.
An Ofcom spokesperson stated that the agency "is investigating the fairness and privacy issues raised by Sky News’ statement that it had accessed without prior authorization private email accounts during the course of its news investigations."
The regulator also announced that it will "make the outcome [of its investigation] known in due course."