The Guardian newspaper has just broken a story which confirms that Anne Darwin, the wife of the "missing canoeist", had her emailed hacked by Sky News, and some of the emails discovered had incriminating materials in them which were passed to the police and used in her trial for assisting in her husband's fraud.
Sky News is claiming that it acted in the public interest and therefore should not face any consequences for the hacking, which is, of course, an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
The report in the Guardian quotes me as follows:
Danvers Baillieu, a specialist internet lawyer with Pinsent Masons, said that while there was no public interest defence "it doesn't mean that a jury would convict a person, or a judge would punish them, because there is usually a discretion in such cases". However, he added that "the difficulty for news organisations is the question of where do you draw the line: would it be legitimate to break into somebody's house who is suspected of committing a crime? The issue with computer offences is that people can do it from their offices, and believe it is a lesser offence than any other type of intrusion."Sky News likened the case to the occassions where reporters have had to break the law (in one case buying an Uzi and in another, breaching security at Heathrow) "in the public interest" for the purposes of their investigation.
Before I gave my comments to Dan Sabbagh at the Guardian, I read the statement from Sky News. It struck me that the cases cited and the hacking of Anne Darwin's email are very different cases. Given that the reporters at Sky News became aware that she had a Yahoo email account, they could have passed that information onto the police, who could have lawfully accessed her emails (i.e. with a warrant) and discovered the incriminating materials themselves.
That's why I made the analogy of breaking into someone's house - just because a reporter suspects a person might have incriminating evidence locked in their safe, does not mean it would be "in the public interest" for that reporter to burgle that person's house to retreive it.
Why is it any different online?
UPDATE: Following this post, I did some TV interviews, first with Al Jazeera (of course) and then later with the BBC (here - 10 o'clock News - picture below). I did a live interview with both (4pm news for Al Jazeera and then 5pm on the BBC News Channel) and some pre-recorded bits as well (see further below). Turned out to be a rather exciting afternoon.