What do the latest allegations mean for the Sun?

Police chief Sue Akers has claimed that there was a "culture of illegal payments" to public official

The Sun appears to be riding high after the launch of a Sunday edition yesterday made the paper the first in the UK to be published seven days a week. It reportedly sold 3 million copies. But just one day later, the head of the police investigations into phone hacking and bribery by journalists has told the Leveson Inquiry that there was a "culture of illegal payments" at the newspaper.

The deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sue Akers, said that one public official had received a total of more than £80,000 from the Sun in return for information, while regular "retainers" were being paid to police and other officials and one journalist had been given over £150,000 to pay his sources over a number of years. She said that there was evidence that some of these payments were authorised at a "senior level".

There appears to have been a culture at the Sun of illegal payments, and systems have been created to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the dentity of the officials receiving the money.

Her testimony follows the arrest of 10 Sun staff on allegations of corruption earlier this month. Some of these journalists have claimed that all they were guilty of is buying lunch for contacts -- which Akers rejected:

The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials. Instead, these are cases in which arrests have been made involving the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists.

She said that Operation Elvedon, which is looking into bribery by journalists, was still in the process of working out the identity of recipients of the cash:

The emails indicate that payments to "sources" were openly referred to within the Sun ... There is a recognition by the journalists that this behaviour is illegal, reference being made to staff "risking losing their pension or job", to the need for "care" and to the need for "cash payments". There is also an indication of "tradecraft", ie hiding cash payments to "sources" by making them to a friend or relative of the source.

Until these arrests, most of the attention had been on the News of the World, which was closed in July after evidence of phone-hacking emerged. Interestingly, Akers said that the decision to broaden the investigation to the Sun had come from News Corporation's management and standards committee (MSC). "This review had not been requested by the [Metropolitan Police]," she said.

In addition to those 10 Sun journalists, emails handed over by the MSC have led to the arrests of two police officers, an employee at the Ministry of Defence, an army officer, and the relative of a public official.

What does this mean for the Sun? Well, it is highly unlikely it will go the way of the News of the World. The launch of the Sun on Sunday signifies Murdoch's faith in the newspaper and its continued commercial viability. Let's not forget that when the launch was announced, the arrests had already been made. On informing staff of the new paper, Murdoch said that "we will obey the law".

However, Akers' allegations could have serious ramifications for the rest of Murdoch's empire. She said the alleged corruption was systemic and endorsed by senior executives, meaning that it falls within the remit of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This could result in fines of hundreds of millions of pounds for News Corp.

As David Allen Green points out, these are still just allegations. But as allegations go, these are incredibly serious. The pressure on the Murdoch group is not going anywhere.

UPDATE: Rupert Murdoch has issued the following statement in response to Akers' claims.

As I've made very clear, we have vowed to do everything we can to get to the bottom of prior wrongdoings in order to set us on the right path for the future. That process is well underway. The practices Sue Akers described at the Leveson inquiry are ones of the past, and no longer exist at the Sun. We have already emerged a stronger company.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.