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.