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LONDON (Reuters)—Sky News, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, said Thursday it had hacked into emails on two occasions but insisted it had acted in the public interest, as the channel's parent company faces an investigation by British regulators.
The potentially damaging admission came two days after Mr. Murdoch's son James quit as chairman of Sky News parent BSkyB in an attempt to limit the spread of a phone-hacking scandal that has already forced the closure of one of Mr. Murdoch's main British newspapers.
The news channel said it authorized a journalist to access the emails of people suspected of criminal activity in the so-called "canoe man" case of a man who faked his own death by paddling out to sea.
In the second hacking episode, the journalist accessed the email accounts of a suspected pedophile and his wife in an investigation that did not lead to any material being published or broadcast.
"We stand by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest," the head of Sky News, John Ryley, said in a statement.
The revelations, first reported in the Guardian newspaper, are a further blow to Mr. Murdoch's reputation, which has been seriously harmed by a phone-hacking scandal at his News of the World tabloid.
The affair blew up last year into a national outrage that forced U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to accept the resignation of his spokesman, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and ended News Corp.'s bid to take over the 61% of BSkyB it did not already own.
Email hacking is a criminal offense under Britain's Computer Misuse act, for which there is no public-interest defense. But public prosecutors do act as a filter by questioning whether a prosecution itself would be in the public interest.
"So although there isn't a public interest defense, in practical terms there is," said Jonathan Coad, a London-based media partner at law firm Lewis Silkin L.L.P. His "gut feeling" was that prosecutors would be unlikely to pursue the Sky News case.
Boston University journalism professor Louis Ureneck, a former deputy editor of Philadelphia Inquirer, said, "Journalists have an obligation to obey the law like all citizens. The Sky News response seems more rationalization than justification."
BSkyB, including its directors and owners, is being investigated by Britain's TV watchdog to determine whether it is a "fit and proper" owner of a broadcast license.
James Murdoch said on Tuesday he was resigning as chairman to protect BSkyB from being harmed by the phone-hacking scandal.
Sky News said it had commissioned an external review of its email records and an internal audit of payment records. It said the email review was nearing its conclusion and no grounds for concern had been found.
Mr. Ryley said, "Sky News is committed to the highest editorial standards. Like other news organizations, we are acutely aware of the tensions that can arise between the law and responsible investigative journalism."
The Guardian newspaper has led the drive to uncover the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World, which Mr. Murdoch shut down last July after it was revealed that the tabloid hacked the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Three separate criminal probes are now under way in Britain after police reopened their investigations a year ago, along with a judge-led inquiry at which Rupert Murdoch will be called to testify under oath later this month.
A Guardian journalist, assistant editor David Leigh, admitted last year that he had once hacked the phone of an arms dealer and said the criminal act had seemed in the circumstances "perfectly ethical."
The Murdoch-owned Times of London has also confirmed that one of its reporters, Patrick Foster, hacked the email account of an anonymous police blogger.
The "canoe man" whose emails were hacked by Sky News was John Darwin, who was thought to have died in a canoeing accident but turned up alive five years later in 2007, having been secretly living with his wife for some of that time in Panama.
Both he and his wife, Anne, who claimed money on his life insurance, were sentenced to six years in jail.
Sky News said in its report at the time that it had "discovered" an email from John to Anne, and cited evidence from several emails between the couple.