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Email Hacking - In the Public Interest?

British media outlet Sky News says it authorized one of its reporters to break into the email account of a British man suspected of faking his own death, in order to learn more information about the case.

Sky News reporter Gerard Tubb was on the hunt for John Darwin, who paddled off into the ocean on a canoe in 2002 and didn't return. He officially became a missing person but secretly went to Panama to look at property with his wife, Anne, who cashed in his life insurance policy. Both reappeared in Britain in 2007 and were convicted of fraud; each received prison terms of more than six years.

Tubb learned Darwin was using an email identity of a friend; with the express permission of Sky News managing editor, Simon Cole, Tubb accessed the account and obtained several emails, according to the Guardian newspaper. The story says the reporter thought the cache would contradict Anne Darwin's statements at her criminal trial. Her husband had already pleaded guilty.

The stunning admission from Sky News, which is co-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., comes as British media are under intense scrutiny for alleged phone hacking. Reporters at the defunct News Corp. News of the World are suspected of breaking into the voice mails of dozens of people, including a murdered teenage girl, as AP notes.

John Ryley, the head of Sky News, released a statement on the email hacking, saying "we do not take such decisions lightly or frequently,", saying there was a second case of email intrusion; he mentions a case of weapons dealings and another involving airport security, but he doesn't make clear if either case involved email break-ins.

Ryley emphasizes that "Sky News is committed to the highest editorial standards." He says the email break-ins were done in the public interest, especially in the Darwins' matter, because police said the reporter's information was "pivotal to the case".

But it's illegal.

Reports say the break-ins violate Britain's Computer Misuse Act, and that there's no public interest defense to shield anyone, as the Telegraph says. However, it's unclear if a case will be brought. The Guardian notes any possible charges are at the discretion of prosecutors who could weigh whether to bring a case or dismiss it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.
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