A CASE OF DOUBLE STANDARDS?
The Guardian today published an appraisal of a story story broadcast by Sky News almost four years ago.
In the 2008 case of Anne Darwin, whose “canoe man” husband John Darwin faked his own death as part of an insurance fraud, we provided the police with emails that helped to secure a conviction on 15 charges of fraud and money laundering. The police described material supplied by Sky News as pivotal to the case. Mrs Darwin received a jail sentence of six and a half years. More than £500,000 of assets have since been recovered and funds returned to the insurance companies and pension funds which were victims of the fraud.
That story was the result of a detailed investigation by a Sky News journalist, who sought authorisation to access email accounts that he suspected were being used by the Darwins to communicate after Mr Darwin’s “death”. After careful consideration, Sky News granted permission because we believed the story was justified in the public interest. 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.
To be absolutely clear, we stand by these actions as editorially justified. As the Crown Prosecution Service itself acknowledges, there are rare occasions where it is justified for a journalist to commit an offence in the public interest. The Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer told the Leveson inquiry that “considerable public interest weight” is given to journalistic conduct which discloses that a criminal offence has been committed and/or concealed.
Some of the most important stories have involved breaking the rules in some way. For example, the Daily Telegraph’s exposé of the MPs’ expenses scandal was very clearly in the public interest, but only happened because the newspaper took the decision to pay for stolen data. They have been widely applauded – deservedly – for doing so.
Indeed, if it was looking for further examples, the Guardian could have found them much closer to home. Its respected investigative reporter David Leigh has admitted hacking a phone in pursuit of a story. The Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, was found on more than 100 occasions to have commissioned information from a notorious private investigator, who was convicted in 2006 of illegally obtaining private data. In each case, a public interest justification has been claimed.
These cases are a demonstration of the tensions that can arise between the law and responsible investigative journalism. At Sky News ,we do not take such decisions lightly or frequently. Each and every time, they require finely balanced judgement based on individual circumstances. They must always be subjected to the proper editorial oversight.
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. In an article for the Times, he wrote, “Whatever the ultimate conclusions of the Leveson inquiry, it is important that the ability of serious investigative journalists to do their work is not blunted or unnecessarily constrained.”That is why the BBC has felt entitled to use deception, private investigators and stolen emails as part of its investigative reporting.
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. If they had, we would have investigated thoroughly and taken whatever action was necessary.
At Sky News, we hold ourselves accountable for our decisions. I’m proud of our journalism and journalists.
It’s less clear why the Guardian should apply such scrutiny to a Sky News story that has been in the public domain since 2008, particularly while failing to acknowledge its own past actions. Needless to say we reminded the Guardian of its own past conduct before they published today’s story.
Double standards? Draw your own conclusions.