Rupert Murdoch’s British satellite news channel has become the latest branch of the mogul’s global media empire to acknowledge bending the rules in an effort to stay ahead.
Sky News admitted on Thursday its reporters hacked e-mails on two separate occasions, insisting that it was done in the public interest.
However, legal experts said that is no defense, the police are investigating and Murdoch’s goal of taking full control of Sky News’ profitable parent company, British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC, may be at risk.
“It seems less likely, and it may not be in their best interest,” said Michael Mannor, an assistant professor of business strategy at the University of Notre Dame. “News Corp is under a lot of pressure in a lot of different ways ... It’s important for a news media organization to have the trust of the public, and that’s been a big struggle.”
Shares in BSkyB fell 5 percent following the revelations, but recovered somewhat in late afternoon trading, closing down about 2.4 percent at ￡0.6425.
Sky News executive editor John Ryley said in a statement released on Thursday that his reporters had twice been authorized to hack into computers for stories.
That included the case of Anne and John Darwin, the so-called “canoe couple” who became notorious in Britain after the husband faked his own death in a boating accident as part of an elaborate insurance scam.
Ryley acknowledged that his organization had intercepted the couple’s e-mails, but said the material was later handed to police and insisted Sky had done nothing wrong.
“We stand by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest,” he said. “We do not take such decisions lightly or frequently.”
Ryley was quick to point out other instances where journalists had pushed the limits, saying that in a 2004 investigation, a Sky News journalist had bought an Uzi submachine gun to illustrate the availability of banned weapons in Britain.
In 2003, a reporter sneaked into a restricted area at London’s Heathrow Airport to highlight security failings, Ryley said.
However, the company’s public interest defense for computer hacking drew immediate skepticism from British legal experts.
Preiskel & Co media lawyer David Allen Green said there was no such thing as a public interest defense as far as Britain’s Computer Misuse Act is concerned. However, he said that Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service can rule that filing charges would not serve the public interest.
“As Sky News took the hacked e-mails to the police themselves, it appears that any prosecution was decided not to be in public interest,” he said in a message posted to Twitter.
That might change. British police said on Thursday they were investigating the circumstances surrounding Sky’s e-mail hack, which was first reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
That could mean a further headache for News Corp, which has seen its moves to increase its 39.1 percent stake in BSkyB scuppered by a string of ethics scandals.
Murdoch’s media empire — whose holdings include Sky News’ sister channel Fox News and the Wall Street Journal — has spent the better part of a year in the spotlight over widespread illegal behavior at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, where journalists routinely hacked into public figures’ telephones in an effort to win scoops.