23 Apr 2012

Leveson examines Sky News email hack admission

A senior editor at Sky News tells the Leveson inquiry its journalists might consider breaking the law to expose wrongdoing, as Ofcom launches an probe into the hacking of emails by its reporters.

John Ryley, Sky’s head of news, has launched a defence of the news channel’s journalistic practices following allegations that its reporters hacked email accounts on two separate occasions.

He told the inquiry into press standards that there might be occasions when journalists have to consider breaking the law to “shed light” on wrongdoing.

But he added that such occasions would be “very, very rare”.

Mr Ryley was probed about the occasion when one of his reporters hacked the email account of back-from-the-dead canoeist John Darwin.

Darwin, 61, faked his own death in a canoeing accident in 2002 so his wife could claim hundreds of thousands of pounds from insurance policies and pension schemes.

The evidence discovered by North of England Correspondent Gerard Tubb was handed to police and used in the successful prosecution of Darwin’s wife Anne, 60, for insurance and pension fraud.

The Darwins, from Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, were jailed at Teesside Crown Court in 2008 for the swindle..

The inquiry heard how Mr Tubb learned from a “source close to the prosecution” that an email account used by Mr Darwin was not going to be used as evidence.

Mr Ryley said Mr Tubb had accessed the account in June 2008 while working on a “court backgrounder” to go out at the conclusion of the trial.

‘Pivitol’ evidence

Ten days after accessing the account, the findings were reported to the police. The detail was “pivotal” in the case against the fraudsters, the inquiry heard.

Mr Ryley was also questioned about a Sky News decision to access emails when following a story about a couple – Martin and Lianne Smith – who fled to Spain when police “took an interest” in Mr Smith, a “suspected paedophile”.

Police had caught up with Mr Smith, who was extradited back to the UK, the inquiry heard. Shortly afterwards Mrs Smith, who had been a childcare worker with a local authority, had killed her daughter and baby son.

Mr Ryley was asked about the justification for the decision to allow a reporter to access Mrs Smith’s emails.

He told the inquiry there were “reasonable grounds” for suspecting that if a local authority had “done more” it might have been able to find the family.

“It was a poignant story that we were interested in investigating,” said Mr Ryley.

“If we’d been able to demonstrate that the local authority had in some way failed, then that might have led to a change in systems and procedures that would save the lives of other children of – ensure there was less harm in the future.”

He added: “I don’t think it was speculative. Because by accessing the email account of Mrs Smith, we would be able to determine whether or not she was in contact with people back in Britain, possibly in the area of where the local authority was set up, and also the extent to which Mrs Smith was living openly in Spain.”

Emails not accessed

Sky News admitted to hacking the emails earlier this month, following an article written by the Guardian containing the allegations relating to the Darwin case.

But it emerged in the inquiry that Lord Justice Leveson was told Sky News had written to the inquiry in August 2011 saying that its journalists had not accessed private emails in pursuit of a story.

The news channel had said: “The Sky News editorial and reporting staff to whom we have spoken have never intercepted communications and any proposal to do so would not be countenanced.”

Mr Ryley said that statement “wasn’t correct” but said there was an explanation.

“As I understand it,” he said. “The letter… sent… concerned and its thrust was about telephone hacking and payments to public officials, and our response to you… was that we would focus on that particular issue, those two issues.”

He added: “It was inaccurate… It is very regrettable indeed and I apologise.”

Separate incidents

Mr Ryley said Sky News was part of BSkyB and BSkyB was part of News International.

But, he said, “our journalistic endeavours, our journalistic activities, our management structures are very separate”.

Lord Justice Leveson told Mr Ryley: “I’m allowing you the opportunity to say, as I think you would want to say, that these are quite specific, separate incidents and do not reveal something that I should deduce about what’s going on in the whole operation?”

Mr Ryley replied: “Absolutely correct.”

Mr Ryley’s comments come as Ofcom confirmed that it is launching an investigation into the hacking of private email accounts by Sky News following its admission.

Ofcom confirmed today that it is investigating the “fairness and privacy issues” raised by the hacking.

A spokesman for the media regulator said today: “Ofcom is investigating the fairness and privacy issues raised by Sky News’ statement that it had accessed without prior authorisation private email accounts during the course of its news investigations.

“We will make the outcome known in due course.”