LONDON - Britain's broadcast regulator announced Monday it was investigating email hacking by Rupert Murdoch's Sky News, only minutes before the channel's head of news acknowledged that his station had broken the law and misled a senior judge.
An Ofcom spokesman said Monday that the investigation would centre on "fairness and privacy issues" stemming from Sky News' admission that it had authorized journalists to hack into email accounts to score exclusives.
Earlier this month Sky's head of news, John Ryley, acknowledged that hacking had happened twice under his watch, a revelation that spread Britain's phone hacking scandal to a new branch of Murdoch's media empire and dealt a further blow to the tycoon's hope of winning full control of Sky News' owner, British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC.
Sky has insisted that the computer breaches were carried out in the public interest, noting that, in one case, it had handed over the hacked information to police.
But legal experts say that such an argument carries little legal weight, and Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the judge charged with investigating Britain's media in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that erupted at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, seemed incredulous when quizzing Ryley about the practice Monday.
Leveson said that Sky might get away with the hacking if prosecutors decide not to press charges, "but at the end of the day you've committed a crime."
"I understand," Ryley said.
In a terse exchange with inquiry lawyer David Barr, Ryley said it was "highly unlikely in the future that Sky will consider breaking the law."
"But you're not ruling it out?" Barr asked.
"I am pretty much ruling it out," Ryley said. "There might be an occasion, but it would be very, very rare."
Ryley also admitted that Sky News had misled Leveson's inquiry when it insisted, in a 2011 letter, that the channel had never intercepted communications. He acknowledged that those assurances were false.
"It is very regrettable indeed, and I apologize," he told the inquiry.
Leveson's inquiry was set up following last year's revelations that journalists at Murdoch's top-selling Sunday newspaper routinely broke the law to stay ahead of the competition. The practice incensed Britain, particularly when it emerged that Murdoch journalists had sought to violate the privacy of a murdered teenager.
The scandal has since spread to Murdoch's The Sun, where many prominent journalists have been arrested on suspicion of bribery, and The Times of London, which is being sued over email hacking.
Ryley said that although Sky News shared Murdoch's News Corp. stable with the now-defunct News of the World, The Sun and The Times, it was its own broadcaster, with its own, independent management structure.
The nature and time frame of Ofcom's investigation into Sky News haven't been made clear. The Ofcom spokesman, who demanded anonymity in line with department policy, declined to go into detail.
Possible penalties range from a formal reprimand to a fine or even the suspension of Sky News' broadcasting license, but media analyst Claire Enders said that any punishment would be on the lighter end.
"It's not a serious matter in our opinion," she said.
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael