Rupert Murdoch's top-selling U.K. tabloid, The Sun, had a culture of making illegal payments to corrupt public officials in return for stories, a senior police officer said Monday, as Murdoch announced that the paper's first Sunday edition had sold more than 3 million copies.
Sue Akers, a Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, told Britain's media ethics inquiry the newspaper openly referred to paying its sources and that such payments had been authorized at a senior level.
Her comments came the day Murdoch's company paid former teen singing sensation Charlotte Church $952,800 Cdn in a phone-hacking settlement for violating her and her family's privacy.
Akers said Sun journalists had paid not only police officers but also military, health and other government officials. One official received a total of $127,100 Cdn over several years, Akers said, and one journalist had been given more than $238,400 Cdn in cash to pay his sources. She said payments went far beyond acceptable practices such as buying sources a meal or a drink.
Akers said "a network of corrupted officials" had provided The Sun with stories that were mostly "salacious gossip."
"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," said Akers, who is in charge of a police investigation into phone hacking and police bribery.
Potentially explosive issues
Akers's blunt words came as the focus of the ethics inquiry shifted from press practices to the potentially explosive issue of corrupt relations with the police.
Akers did not indicate when or whether the payments had ended, but Murdoch insisted practices at The Sun have now changed.
"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," he said in an emailed statement. 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."
Akers made her accusations a day after Murdoch launched The Sun on Sunday, a replacement for his shuttered, scandal-tainted News of the World. He said the inaugural edition had sold 3.25 million copies — more than the News of the World averaged before it was closed.
Police are currently holding three parallel investigations spawned by the hacking scandal that grew out of revelations journalists at the News of the World routinely intercepted voice mails of those in the public eye in a relentless search for scoops.
Scandal shuts tabloid
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid in July amid a wave of public revulsion, and the scandal has triggered a judge-led public inquiry into media ethics. An earlier police investigation failed to find evidence that hacking went beyond one reporter and a private investigator, who were both jailed in 2007 for eavesdropping on the phones of royal staff.
Murdoch's News Corp. has now acknowledged the practice was much more widespread.
Senior executives of Murdoch's British newspaper division, including former News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, have always insisted they were unaware of widespread phone hacking at the tabloid, even though private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was jailed briefly in 2007 for eavesdropping on royal aides on behalf of the tabloid.
But an email from the News of the World's then-lawyer, Tom Crone, submitted to the inquiry suggests that both Coulson —who later became Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief — and Brooks knew in 2006 that police had a list of about 100 people who might have been targeted by Mulcaire.
A former senior police officer, Brian Paddick, also told the inquiry Monday that Mulcaire had information on the new identities of people who had been placed under the witness protection program for their own protection.
"For this to be in the hands of Mulcaire and potentially the News of the World is clearly worrying," Paddick said.
News International, Murdoch's British newspaper division, has paid several million pounds in damages and legal costs to dozens of phone hacking victims, including celebrities like Jude Law and crime victims such as the family of Milly Dowler, a murdered 13-year-old whose voicemails were intercepted in 2002.
Legal victory for singer
Church's settlement Monday resolved her claim that 33 News of the World articles were the product of journalists illegally hacking into her family's voicemails. Despite her legal victory, Church said years of tabloid intrusions followed by years of 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.
British 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 more than a dozen current and former journalists from the two papers have been arrested over allegations of phone hacking or bribing public officials.
Several Murdoch executives have resigned because of the scandal, as have two of Britain's top police officers, accused of not doing enough to get to the bottom of the wrongdoing.