British regulators are starting an inquiry into Sky News, which acknowledged that it hacked into email accounts in search of information about a canoeist who faked his own death and an alleged pedophile who later died in prison.
As The Independent newspaper reported on April 13:
John Ryley, head of Sky News, told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that occasions where a journalist would break the law in pursuit of a story would be “very, very rare.”
“Journalism is at times a tough business,” he said. “And we need at times to shed light into wrongdoing. There may be an occasion. It would be very, very rare.”
Several times in Doing Ethics in Media, we discuss that sometimes there’s justification to break a law in order to do a greater good:
* In Chapter 4′s discussion of moral development, we note Kohlberg’s hierarchy that says highly developed people might be willing to break the rules.
* In Chapter 7′s discussion of truth, we note that most journalism ethics codes don’t outright forbid undercover operations (a form of lying) but provide guidelines related to when doing something that might be morally questionable would be appropriate as the best or only way to do that greater good.
Is this one of those cases where the news organization was justified in breaking the law?
The Levenson Inquiry may help decide that, although it’s more focused on legal issues than moral nuances. The Guardian newspaper says British laws against breaking into private communications do not mention “public good” as a defense.
Moreover, some circumstantial evidence may not work in Sky News’ favor, including the fact that:
* Sky News didn’t tell the truth the first time it was asked whether it had intercepted email. Chapter 13 notes that mass communicators should be transparent in their decision-making, both willing and able to defend themselves. (As the “How’s it going to look” question says,”…imagine what your friends and people you respect will think.” about your decision.)
* There are phone hacking issues surrounding News Corp., which owns a partial interest in Sky News. While no one here suggests that the phone hacking that occurred at News Corp. tabloids and the Sky News email hacking are related, some people might make that connection. Either way, the two different sets of questionable actions adds up to people who lump “media” into a single category.
* Sky News planned on turning over what it found to police. (Some might argue that police and journalists ought not to work together.)
* The managing editor who authorized the hacking isn’t with Sky News anymore. Cole says his retirement was planned and not connected to the investigation. But given that the company lied to the government when first asked about the hacking, credibility is already low.
Questions to ask:
* What do you think?
* In what circumstances can journalists break the law for a greater good?
* Should journalists be legally responsible for their actions when they break laws for a greater good?
* How important is accountability/transparency in such situations?
* Is this posting fair in mentioning the News Corp. connection to Sky News?