Sky News admits it hacked Canoe Man's email

Filed Under: Law & order, Privacy

John and Anne DarwinBroadcaster Sky News has admitted that it authorised a journalist to hack email accounts on two separate occasions.

According to media reports, the TV stations's northern England correspondent, Gerard Tubb, accessed an email account belonging to John Darwin - the so-called "Canoe Man" who faked his own death as part of a complex fraud involving his wife.

The case gripped the British public's imagination, with canoeist John Darwin faking his own death at sea in 2002 only to subsequently walk into a London police station over five years later.

In a news report from 2008, which - at the time of writing - is still available on the Sky News website, the reporter described that he had uncovered evidence including emails that revealed why the missing man returned to Britain from Panama, and the couple's plan to settle back in South America.

Sky News story. Click for larger version

A spreadsheet, allegedly created by the couple and describing their "masterplan", was also published by Sky News on its website.

Part of canoe man's spreadsheet published by Sky News

In addition, the same journalist is said to have accessed the email accounts of a suspected paedophile and his wife, but the information did not lead to a published or broadcast story.

The hacks are said to have been approved by Simon Cole, the managing editor of Sky News.

John Ryley, the head of Sky News, told The Guardian that the broadcaster had "authorised a journalist to access the emails of individuals suspected of criminal activity" and that the hacking in both cases was "justified and in the public interest".

Sky News has released an official statement justifying the hacking.

One has to question whether hacking someone's email account can ever be defended with a "public interest" defence. Unauthorised access to another individual's computer or email account is a breach of the Computer Misuse Act, a criminal offence that can lead to imprisonment.

The news of the Sky News-endorsed hack, which is part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, comes at a difficult time for the broadcaster.

Two days ago, James Murdoch resigned as chairman of BSkyB, in what was seen as an attempt to distance the firm from alleged wrongdoing at other parts of the News International empire such as the now-deceased News of the World.


What do you think? Were the hacks really in the public interest? Leave a comment below and let us know your views.

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15 Responses to Sky News admits it hacked Canoe Man's email

  1. Linda Raizenne · 932 days ago

    no it's not justifiable in any case! Newscasters certainly don't have the right to hack into anyone's email on the presumption of wrong doing. If that's not addressed then it leaves everyone open to invasion of our rights as a private citizen! Newscasters are not above the law and in doing what this one did should face the consequences of his actions regardless of the outcome his hacking produced!

    • Randy · 644 days ago

      Even the police need a court order to do this sort of thing. All the reporter got was an OK from his boss.

  2. Dan · 932 days ago

    Brazen. Shameless. Cretinous. But not shocking.

  3. Donna · 932 days ago

    I agree with Linda. If they will admit to this what will they Not admit too. This organization has taken themsleves out of the news media realm and put themselves as judge and jury, used their power to promote their own agenda, bullied officials, politicians and anyone that doesn't agree with them.

  4. R0nin · 932 days ago

    "The Public Interest" has become a trite justification for invading others' privacy, simply because other people "want to know". But the public has no "right to know", and what news outlets are really concerned about is their "right" to make money off breaching other people's privacy, and publishing the results.

    Now they're using the same lame justification for breaking the law. But despite the fact they think they're above the law, they aren't.

    • Ethical Hacker · 931 days ago

      good points; public interest though, is that in its defence or nosiness ?

  5. sharp · 931 days ago

    Personally I think Sky made the Excel chart. These people should still be in jail.

    So I guess this means we can hack all of Sky News emails . What else can we find in their emails, and deleted documents. Remember it's justified by John Ryley as Public interest and suspected Criminal Activity in which they have concealed. Does that mean hacking the government is acceptable, because someone is pursuing a story in the public's interest.

    "Sky News and the BBC are in agreement on this subject. Its director general, Mark Thompson, has argued publicly that there are occasions when it is acceptable to break the law in pursuit of a story in the public interest.
    At the same time, we are equally clear that we do not tolerate wrong-doing. That’s why we commissioned, at our own initiative, reviews of payments and email records at Sky News. I’m pleased to say those reviews did not reveal any illegal or unethical behaviour."

  6. Dan · 931 days ago

    With these continuing cases coming up regarding divisions of News Corp, I think it is time that it was simply shut down. They don't seem to understand that their choice to hack things for the purpose of "news" is simply unacceptable.

    This being the same company as Fox News, though, it is completely unsurprising.

  7. ethical hacker · 931 days ago

    On one hand, it is blatantly illegal - with only looking at say the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
    Morals and ethics - important, but are trumped by the law.

    So on the other hand, the CPS have said that under certain circumstances (they have the discretion as to weather or not to prosecute a crime on behalf of the Crown) it is permissible.

    Now, we have to ask our selves if we stop journalists (traditional or not) from hacking (which is a wrong [legal/ethical/moral], would we EVER have uncovered the expenses scandal, the Watergate (and related scandals)? - would we ever hear anything at all?

    Levison is revealing the good, the bad and the sad. Murdoch et al may very well have exposed a hidden leaver in society that may well have been controlling our lives for longer than we have sleep walked for...

  8. Ethical Hacker · 931 days ago

    Although I find myself agreeing and disagreeing, I find myself in a dilemma.

    On one hand you'd kind of want the press to dig up the things they have dug up in the past, be it the expenses scandal, or some other form of misconduct that has been hidden away, but dug up by investigative journalists (traditional or not). Sometimes breaking the law is justified. But it is never black and white. And perhaps that is why the CPS (the state) put in place at their discretion certain circumstances where it may be justified.

    If you look at ethical hacking and the computer misuse, e.g. dual purpose of tools like a kitchen knife it can be used for good steak, or bad steak. Equally perl scripting can be carried out for good and bad. The CPS has guidance for prosecutors here too.

    In the public interest, for our good; or in our nosiness. To say blatantly, in black and white the law is broken that is arguably true. Perhaps is should be up to a judge, and jury to decide.

  9. John · 931 days ago

    Link to canoe man story no longer works

  10. Dezri · 931 days ago

    How can anyone with no legal authority "authorize" an illegal act? It takes an incredibly brazen person (as well as delusional) to make a claim like that!
    I wouldn't trust anyone that would do that kind of thing no matter the reason.

  11. Sam · 931 days ago

    The press are an appalling rabble - how dare they think that just because they think it in the public interest they can do what they like. If you or I did that we would be arrested, accused of taking the law into our own hands and prosecuted for the hacking offence - there is no public interest exclusion in the Computer Misuse Act. Like everyone else, if they have suspicion or evidence of a criminal offence then they should take it to the police for appropriate investigation.

  12. Peter Davies · 929 days ago

    Invasion of privacy is not necessarily in the "public interest". Those words are used by the media to cover a lot of sins.

    And that thought leads me to ask why new legislation is needed by the Government to read our e-mails, etc. We already have the means in the applications to magistrates to give legal permission to tap phones and to search properties. It needs only to be extended to cover what the Government wants. The important point is that it requires approval by a separate legal branch on a case by case basis, based on reasonable grounds for the approval.

  13. Nick · 326 days ago

    Its illegal, but that doesn't necessarily make it either unethical, or immoral.
    Anyone can authorise an illegal act, but that does not make it legal. There are circumstances where an act that would otherwise be illegal, can be authorised and so be legal (when the person who authorises does so within their own legal powers) - this happens all the time, in public and in private. A search in accordance with a warrant is legal, while entering someones house without one is not.
    What the press fail to recognise is the difference between stories that are in the public interest, and stories the public is interested in. The 'public interest' defence does not work here. Sky news should be prosecuted so as to make it clear that they are not above the law.
    They could try to use the public interest defence, and it might work in other cases, but it does not make an illegal act legal, it just serves to justify why you considered it necessary, and even in cases where it is not specifically allowed, it may prevent you from being found guilty, or it may ensure that your punishment is reduced.

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.