The story today that Sky News sanctioned the hacking of John Darwin’s (you remember, the bloke who pretended to die in a canoe accident to claim the insurance money) Yahoo email account, will create headlines, but unless Sky News is found to have sanctioned further instances of hacking, is unlikely to cause a huge stir.
The story will raise eyebrows, mainly due to the connection Sky News has with News International, but broadcast news is a different beast from tabloid reporting, and such cases of news investigation, as has been uncovered within The News of the World, and elsewhere, will not have been as common within this sector of reporting.
Sky News may have taken a gamble in sanctioning such an investigative method, and is able to defend itself robustly having been able to prove that Darwin’s wife was aware that he was still alive and in contact with her husband, despite Darwin claiming to have lost his memory when he initially handed himself into police. This information is in the public’s interest and was handed to police having been discovered by Sky News’ northern England correspondent Garrard Tubb, who had sought the approval of head of news, John Ryley.
On another similar occasion, Tubb also gained access to the emails of a suspected paedophile and his wife, although nothing was ever broadcast as a result of having done so.
“We stand by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest. 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,“ said Ryley in a statement released today. He also revealed that a Sky News journalist bought a machine gun in 2004 in an investigation that aimed to highlight the ease with which it was to purchase illegal weapons within the UK.
Both cases go against the Computer Misuse Act, and I’ll be surprised if Ofcom doesn’t consider the case very closely - and the organisation would be right to do so. However, I hope that on this occasion - should further evidence of hacking not come to light - they find in favour or Sky News. I don’t condone the practice of hacking - although on this occasion I believe that the journalist and the organisation have considered their actions and acted in the belief that they were working on the side of veritas. However that is a murky border to cross, and a difficult one to argue as well.
In all that has come to light in that last year, mainly focusing upon News International, journalism has taken a beating, with few able to offer much of a defence. But some of the finest pieces of news reporting will have walked down this road and veered off the legal path to some extent, in order to break stories of historical significance. That the news industry now works through and around a society where businesses are spoken for by PR officials can make it all the more difficult to get to the truth, and when it comes to deciding what is right and wrong, that too can be down to individual perception.
I have a feeling that news organisations are frightened for their reputations to take such gambles in the current climate, and as a result, few journalists have the confidence of their convictions to chase down stories that truly are in the public interest and may need legal advice
It’s now no longer the case that ‘truth will out’, but more that ‘a version of truth will out’ as differing accounts are offered.
Journalists need to become brave once more to find and report the truth. News organsations much also be brave. I wonder if Sky News would have sanctioned such an investigation today. I unfortunately doubt it. And perhaps that is a shame. Perhaps.