Another major British media empire has gotten caught with its hand in the till.
Do you remember News of the World? A tabloid so racy, so slanted, so full of irresponsible gossip, so thick with misinformation that no genuine fact could survive a full news cycle if it were accidentally caught there overnight?
Do you remember a few months ago when News of the World caught such a huge pile of [negative response] after admitting it spent the past decade hacking the voice mail of every phone in England to turn up juicy gossip? Remember the scandal that was so intense NOTW's parent company had to shut it down completely? Even though the parent company was News Corp., whose reputation for the sterling virtues is such that it needed hardly any changes to model for the evil global media empire in the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies?
If hacking voice mails is so grave a sin that even the most brazen power-broking, celebrity-baiting, sleaze-peddling imitator of journalism in the world is hoist by its own petard when it gets busted, you'd think every other news organization without a death wish would steer clear of that particular technique, wouldn’t you? Or at least not defend it if it turned out you'd done something similar?
You would not. Not if you were Sky News, the 24-hour satellite news channel that is England's answer to CNN.
Today the British Guardian newspaper broke the story that that Sky News editors had gave permission for a reporter to get illegal access to the online email accounts of the two central figures in a four-year-old insurance fraud scandal.
What's worse, Sky editors are defending the decision as being of such great importance to the British public that it justifies their one tiny little step across the line between honest journalism and felonious hackery.
"After careful consideration, Sky News granted permission because we believed the story was justified in the public interest," according to a blog entry posted by Sky News chief John Ryley. "None of the material obtained was broadcast prior to the conviction and our coverage made clear that we had discovered and supplied emails to the police. There has been no attempt by Sky News to conceal these facts, which have been available on our website ever since."
The story wasn't exactly a national-security priority, though.
The hack didn't help solve a crime, jump-start an investigation or even reveal anything critical to understanding the story itself. It did give Sky News some exclusive stories and add a behind-the-curtains angle to the story, but not as effectively as if the exclusive information came from legitimate reporting that Sky could brag about.
Instead Sky News covered the story of the "canoe man" the same way other outlets did: It reported about the disappearance and presumed death of John Darwin in 2002.
It followed the news when John Darwin, who had faked his death in 2002 and hid out in Panama for five years, turned himself in to British authorities after changes to Panamanian visa laws took away his safe haven.
It covered his return to England, indictment on seven cases of fraud and guilty plea.
It was only when Anne Darwin was on her way to trial in 2008 for her part in the scheme, which netted the pair £500,000 from a life-insurance policy after John's disappearance.
It was only then that reporter Gerard Tubb swung into action, asking permission to hack the online email accounts of Anne and John Darwin to discover the juicy details behind the disappearance and return of the dead man.
Tubbs said his goal was to build up a database of messages he could use in his own stories during Anne Darwin's trial to contradict portions of her defense.
Puncturing the lies of public figures and exposing the hidden truth of situations that have a real impact on the public is what's known along the road to hell as "good intentions."
When they're followed with legitimate reporting and ethical decisions about what sources to use, what data to pursue and, most important, which stories are worth spending the additional time and energy an investigation takes, the result is the kind of story that puts crooked politicians in jail, motivates ordinary people to march in the streets to change policies they dislike or hold police, corporate executives and government functionaries accountable for the job they're supposed to do.
None of those things applied in the Darwin case. Despite the added drama of a faked death and mysterious disappearance, the Darwin "Canoe Man" disappearance was only a case of two people trying to defraud an insurance company.
Even the fake-death plot was stolen from any of dozens of TV movies and detective shows, none of which made it remotely believable, few of which treated fake-death plots as anything but trivial, last-ditch efforts at escape.
Even in the fictional TV versions there were rarely any major impact on public policy, the lives of oppressed minorities or serious implications for national-security. None were the kind of issue that would justify "enhanced" interrogation techniques, let alone digital breaking and entering.
The Darwin case wasn't a story arc from 24 that required anyone to save the world once a week for a whole season. It was an episode of Psych and not one of the serious-ish ones, either.
"Editorially justified?" No. Not unless by that you mean an editor from Sky News tried to justify under-the-table investigations that did more harm to their whole profession than they did good for even a single member of their audience.
The justification was tossed out the window in favor of the motivation -- competitiveness, the desire to beat the competition on any juicy little tidbit and a few journalists so caught up in the thrill of the chase they stopped caring what they were chasing or what damage they did trying to catch it.
Even if a human-interest story anchored by a quirky bit of deception and fraud were important enough to impact national security, the threat would have to be a pretty damn big one to justify a reporter breaking in to someone else's email. Watergate, say. The Pentagon Papers.
Not John Darwin, who faked death on a canoe trip and then holed up in Panama for half a decade.
Sky's response to the Guardian pooh-poohed the expose by saying it happened four whole years ago and that all the facts behind its investigations were in the story, up on its web site, for anyone to see for that whole time.
Sky's full disclosure turns out to have been a mention in a Tubbs story that Sky News had "discovered an email" dated from husband to wife in which he said visa regulation changes meant he would have to leave Panama, where he'd been hiding. The email was dated May 31, 2007, five years after Darwin "died."
The story also quoted other emails extensively and included diagrams drawn by John for Anne, which seems like a lot of data to get from just one accidentally encountered email.
Whether Sky admitted its methods or not, the methods themselves are indefensible.
Too many people already think everyone in the news media are shills for one political party or corporate superpower or another. Usually that's laughably untrue, if only because journalists are far too independent and bloody-minded to cooperate on dinner plans, let alone major political or corporate conspiracies.
Idiocy like Sky's undercuts the only thing journalism has going for it
Ethics have a practical purpose in journalism; they give us a framework of acceptable behavior we can point to in a fruitless effort to get our own audience to believe we're not lying to them in every paragraph of every story every day.
We're not lying. Often we're just wrong. You catch us in that most of the time and, most of the time, we own up to our mistakes and try to correct them.
Mistakes erode our credibility as quickly as if we were printing lies on purpose because it pays more. We don't; in journalism, neither truth nor lies pay enough to be worth the effort of twisting a truth when you're able to find one.
Mostly we're just not as good as we could be at digging up the real truth. There are so many small lies designed to shine up the image of some politician, business wonk or celebrity that it's hard to even get to the big lies, let alone expose them.
And there are enough real scandals in journalism to justify the cynicism of an audience that looks at the weasel droppings published every day by News of the World and its ilk and wonders how it can ever believe simple errors or omissions in less rodential publications could be anything but intentional.
What we don't need is idiots thinking their investigations are so critically important to the public (no matter how trivial the story) that anything they do in pursuit of their own stories or own careers is justified.
Don't spin, Sky; you're no good at it.
Making a juicy story a little more juicy right before a trial is not an important enough result to justify committing felonies.
It is dishonest. It is self defeating. It is self-aggrandizing and arrogant.
It is stupid.
I dearly hope Sky – which is partly owned by the same News Corp. that owned News of the World – is the last British news outlet hiding this kind of skeleton in the closet. According to the Guardian, one London Times reporter hacked the email of an anonymous police blogger last year, but that was apparently on his own, not by permission of editors, as was the case at Sky and News of the World.
Still bad, just not formally, systemically bad.
Sky hasn't announced what it will do, if anything, to make up for the offense.
It could shut down the Northern England bureau that gave birth to this stinky little package.
It could fire the reporter and all the editors involved and make their names as public as possible so no other news organization would hire them again.
Then it could track each of them down in their forced retirement, bang on their doors late at night and brutally fire them again.
That would make journalists feel as if something were being done.
It wouldn’t make much difference to the audience in England. After one big hacking scandal that's still dragging its way toward judgment through courts, Parliament public opinion, most British have probably stopped worrying about Anonymous and AntiSec and started worrying if their valuable personal information is going to be stolen by the nearest journalist rather than the nearest hacktivist. God knows they've got enough reason to believe it by now.