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When is hacking justified? Never

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2012 - British journalists seem to have been reading too many Stieg Larsson's books about the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist gets his best information from computer hacking.

Sky News, part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, admitted to the Guardian newspaper that it authorized a journalist to hack into emails to pursue at least two stories. Sky News went on to defend its action as "editorially justified and in the public interest."

Even with the protection of the First Amendment on this side of the Atlantic, journalists do not have the right to disobey laws on computer or phone hacking to get a story -- even a great story.

The Cincinnati Enquirer seemed to have a great story in 1998 when it disclosed allegedly illegal business practices by Chiquita Bananas in central America. But it turned out that the newspaper's investigative reporter got the story through illegal access to the voice mail system. The paper ended up apologizing and paying a reported $10 million-plus to avoid a lawsuit. Reporter Michael Gallagher pleaded guilty to tapping the phone system.

Sky News seems to think the value of its stories justified its action. It apparently hacked emails in a case involving a pedophile and another involving the "canoe man," who paddled out to sea in 2002 and disappeared, only to fly secretly to Panama where he met up with his wife.

But as the Cincinnati Enquirer found out, the greater good argument falls in the face of clear prohibitions against hacking. This is one bright line that I tell my journalism students never to cross.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.