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Friday, April 06, 2012

British Broadcasting Giant in Deep for Email Hacking

Story first appeared in The New York Times.

LONDON — Sky News, a British satellite news broadcaster whose parent company is part-owned by a News Corporation, admitted Thursday that one of its reporters had hacked into e-mails on two occasions while pursuing news stories, the first time that Britain’s hacking scandal has spilled into television news.

The acknowledgment came just two days after the News Corporation's son resigned as chairman of Sky’s parent company, British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB. Company officials said there was no link between the resignation and the hacking revelations, which were made public only as a result of a recent inquiry by the newspaper The Guardian.

Sky said the hacking, while illegal, had been authorized by its executives for journalistic reasons — in pursuit of a story that benefited the public interest — and in one instance had helped a police investigation. And the company said that a continuing review of its e-mail records and accounts had so far turned up no evidence of impropriety in Sky’s reporting practices.

The admission came after months of overlapping police, parliamentary and judicial inquiries into phone hacking, e-mail hacking and paying bribes to public officials at two company-owned tabloids, The Sun and the now-defunct News of the World. In general, broadcasters abide by higher standards of news gathering in Britain than newspapers do. Sky News operates separately from the newspaper business and has asserted its independence by aggressively reporting on News Corporation’s troubles.

Still, the disclosures of e-mail hacking come at an awkward time for BSkyB, which is 39.1 percent owned by News Corporation and which has suffered from its association with the owners as the hacking scandal has unfolded.

Last summer, stung by sustained criticism in Parliament and across Britain, News Corporation withdrew one of the owners' cherished goals: its $12 billion bid to take over the portion of BSkyB that he did not own already. On Tuesday, in announcing the chairman's resignation from BSkyB, the company said the continuing phone hacking investigation was making him a lightning rod for dissatisfaction and proving distracting to the company.

A report from a House of Commons select committee investigating phone hacking is scheduled to be released within the next few weeks, and is expected to criticize the chairman for what some members believe was incomplete and misleading testimony during hearings last summer.

A representative of Sky said Thursday that one of the e-mail hacking cases occurred in 2008 and concerned a Briton who staged his death in a fake canoeing accident in 2002 but actually moved to Panama and, in collusion with his wife, collected £500,000 in life insurance.

Known in the tabloids as the “canoe man,” he returned to Britain and lived in a secret apartment in his old house until 2007, when he turned himself in to a police station, claiming at first to have no idea what he had been doing for the last five years.

The next year, a Sky News reporter pursuing the story sought permission to hack into e-mails he suspected had been used by the Darwins to communicate after the fake death.

A second case involved e-mails relating to a suspected pedophile, a spokeswoman for Sky News said. On both occasions, she said, the managing editor of Sky News authorized the hacking.

The company likened the e-mail hacking to other instances in which journalists broke the law for the sake of journalism. In 2004, Sky News journalists bought an Uzi machine gun to highlight how easy it was to buy illegal weapons in Britain. The year before, a reporter penetrated airport security to show how porous it was.

BSkyB has suffered various upheavals in the last year. As a result of the allegations surrounding the Murdochs’ newspaper business in Britain, the broadcaster is being investigated by Ofcom, the British broadcast regulator, over whether it is “fit and proper” to hold a television license.

Critics seized on Sky’s disclosures as evidence of impropriety at the company.

But the head of Enders Analysis, a media research firm in London, said she thought that the biggest potential obstacle to BSkyB’s retaining its broadcast license had been the chairman, and that his resignation had removed much of the problem.

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