UK police: Culture of illegal payments at The Sun

Monday, February 27, 2012

A senior British police official said Monday that Britain's biggest selling tabloid, The Sun, had a culture of making illegal payments to public officials in return for stories.

The Metropolitan Police's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told Britain's media ethics inquiry that the newspaper, part of Rupert Murdoch's global empire, openly referred to paying its sources and that such payments were authorized at a senior level.

Akers made her accusations a day after Murdoch launched The Sun's Sunday edition.

Akers said journalists paid not only police officers but also police, military, health and government officials. One official received a total of 80,000 pounds ($126,912) over several years, Akers said, adding that police also are investigating if public officials were placed on retainers by newspapers.

She said "a network of corrupted officials" was providing the Sun with stories that were mostly "salacious gossip."

The Metropolitan police are currently handling three parallel investigations spawned by the tabloid phone hacking scandal, which grew out of revelations that journalists at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid - which had been The Sun's sister paper - routinely intercepted voice mails of those in the public eye in a relentless search for scoops.

On Monday, Charlotte Church, a former teen singing sensation, received 600,000 pounds ($951,000) from News International, a division of Murdoch's News Corp., in a settlement resolving her claim that 33 News of the World articles were the product of journalists illegally hacking into her family's voice mails.

Despite her legal victory, Church sharply criticized Murdoch's empire, saying years of tabloid intrusions followed by legal battles had horrified her.

"What I have discovered as the litigation has gone on has sickened and disgusted me. Nothing was deemed off limits by those who pursued me and my family, just to make money for a multinational news corporation," she said outside London's High Court, where the settlement was agreed.

Police and News Corp. lawyers are combing through millions of emails for evidence of wrongdoing at The Sun as well as the News of the World, and several senior members of The Sun's staff have already been called in for questioning over allegations of bribing public officials. More arrests are possible.

Akers, who is in charge of the investigation into phone hacking and police bribery, said: "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 identity of the officials receiving the money."

She said one of the journalists who had been arrested has "over several years received over 150,000 pounds ($238,000) in cash to pay his sources, a number of whom were public officials." She said payments to public officials went far beyond acceptable practices like buying contacts a meal or a drink.

Murdoch said practices at The Sun have now changed.

In an emailed statement he said: "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 under way. 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."

Akers was giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

Murdoch has closed the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid, many journalists have been arrested and several top executives have resigned.

Dozens have been arrested or pushed to resign because of the scandal, including two of Britain's top police officers who were accused of not doing enough to get to grips with the tabloid's wrongdoing.

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