For a seasoned businessman like James Murdoch, timing is everything. As TIME pointed out yesterday, his decision to resign as chairman of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) comes just weeks before a parliamentary committee publishes its report into phone hacking at News International—the Murdoch family’s embattled British newspaper business. Extracting himself from the hot seat at BSkyB—which is the focus of a separate investigation by a government regulator—will help distance the company from the chatter that, rightly or wrongly, surrounds him. His departure undoubtedly pleased some investors: many increasingly saw him as a toxic asset damaging their brands.
Murdoch’s exit now seems like it may have been rushed to avoid news that hacking has, in recent years, extended beyond the family newspaper business. Today executives at Sky News—the 24-hour British satellite television broadcaster, and a subsidiary of BSkyB—admitted that they had authorized a journalist to illegally hack into the e-mails of members of the public on two separate occasions. It’s the first known instance of hacking within Britain’s broadcast media.
Gerard Tub, the network’s correspondent covering the north of England, accessed e-mails belonging to John Darwin—the so-called “canoe man”—who faked his own drowning in 2002 so that his wife could collect hundreds of thousands of pounds in life insurance payments. Very much alive, he moved to Panama where his wife later joined him. The couple returned to Britain in December 2007—but within weeks faced charges of fraud. Initially he claimed to have amnesia. In March 2008, however, he finally pleaded guilty to deception. Anne was due to stand trial for deception and money laundering that July.
In the weeks leading up to Anne’s trial, Simon Cole, the managing editor of Sky News, approved Tub’s decision to illegally access John Darwin’s Yahoo! account. Among other things, Tub uncovered an e-mail in which John complained that his tourist visa to Panama was about to expire. Others messages cast even more doubt on Ms. Darwin’s defense that her “domineering” husband had coerced her into the salacious fraud. Cole also approved the use of e-mail hacking in a separate pedophile investigation that did not result in a story.
Sky News justified the illegal activity in a statement released on April 5. “We stand by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest. We do not take such decisions lightly or frequently,” it said. “They require finely balanced judgement based on individual circumstances and must always be subjected to the proper editorial controls.”
Murdoch may or may not have rushed his resignation so that it came ahead of today’s revelations, which were published in the Guardian. To the casual observer, the news might suggest still more toxicity in the Murdoch Empire. But in this instance Sky News seems to be in the right—and their public interest argument has legs to stand on. In July 2008, officials from the broadcaster presented police investigating the Darwin case with the relevant emails. A court later found Anne Darwin guilty in the trial held a few weeks later, and the judge sentenced her to more than six years in prison. Besides being transparent with the authorities, executives at Sky also conducted an internal process that assessed its responsibilities as a news gathering organization. “We are acutely aware of the tensions that can arise between the law and responsible investigative journalism,” their statement said. The same logic guided the company’s decision to dispatch a journalist to buy an Uzi machine gun in 2004. That investigation highlighted the ease with which members of the public can obtain an illegal weapon.
Perhaps Murdoch would have been wiser to resign after today’s news. Surely the reporting on show today is the kind any news organization—particularly those under the embattled Murdoch umbrella—should value.