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UK’s Sky News: We hacked in the public interest

Rupert Murdoch’s British satellite news channel on Thursday became the latest branch of the mogul’s global media empire to acknowledge bending the rules in an effort to stay ahead.

Sky News admitted its reporters hacked emails on two separate occasions, insisting that it was done in the public interest.

But legal experts said that’s no defense, the police are investigating, and Mr. Murdoch’s goal of taking full control of Sky News’ profitable parent company, British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC, may be at risk.

Sky chief John Ryley said in a statement released Thursday that his reporters had twice been authorized to hack into computers for stories. That included in the case of Anne and John Darwin, the so-called “canoe couple” who became notorious in Britain after the husband faked his own death in a boating accident as part of an elaborate insurance scam.

Mr. Ryley said the intercepted material was later handed to police and insisted Sky had done nothing wrong. “We stand by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest,” he said. “We do not take such decisions lightly or frequently.”

But the company’s public-interest defense for computer hacking drew immediate skepticism from British legal experts. David Allen Green, media lawyer at Preiskel & Co., said there is no such thing as a public-interest defense as far as Britain’s Computer Misuse Act is concerned.

British police said Thursday they were investigating the circumstances surrounding Sky’s email hack, which was first reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Mr. Murdoch’s media empire — whose holdings include Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal — has spent the better part of a year in the spotlight over widespread illegal behavior at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, where journalists routinely hacked into public figures’ phones in an effort to gain scoops.

Compiled from Web and wire service reports.