A day after presiding over the publication of his new, damn-the-critics Sun on Sunday tabloid, was confronted with fresh allegations from a top police investigator that the daily Sun had systematically paid large sums of money to “a network of corrupted officials” in the British police, military and government.
The allegations, part of a deepening criminal probe into The Sun and Mr. Murdoch’s defunct News of the World, highlight the challenges to Mr. Murdoch and his News Corporation as he seeks to minimize the threat to his British media holdings. They also cast a harsh spotlight on the freewheeling pay-for-information culture of the British media.
In public testimony on Monday, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who is leading the criminal investigation into Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers, said The Sun, long a source of special pride and attention for Mr. Murdoch, had illegally paid the unidentified officials hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for news tips and “salacious gossip.” She said the payments had been authorized “at a very senior level within the newspaper.”
Her comments, unusual during a continuing criminal inquiry, directly undercut Mr. Murdoch’s campaign of support for the embattled newspaper. On Feb. 17, the 80-year-old Mr. Murdoch made a grand entrance into the Sun newsroom, where, marching around in shirtsleeves, he vowed to reinstate journalists suspended in the criminal investigation, offered to pay their legal bills, issued a robust statement about the paper’s probity and announced that he was defying conventional industry wisdom by starting a Sunday issue.
Ms. Akers said illegal activities had been rife at the paper. “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 told the Leveson Inquiry on media ethics and practices, led by Lord Justice Leveson. The payments involved “frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” to public officials, she said.
In a statement, Mr. Murdoch said that “the practices Sue Akers described at the Leveson Inquiry are ones of the past, and no longer exist at The Sun.”
He remained publicly bullish, helping promote the new Sun on Sunday in newspaper stores and announcing on Twitter that it had sold 3.26 million copies.
In another blow to Mr. Murdoch, related this time to The News of the World, a lawyer for the Leveson Inquiry said Rebekah Brooks, a former Murdoch executive, was apparently informed by the police in 2006 that detectives had evidence that the cellphones of dozens of celebrities, politicians and sports figures had been illegally hacked by an investigator working for the newspaper.
The disclosure, contained in a September 2006 e-mail from a company lawyer to the editor of The News of the World, Andy Coulson, is highly significant. Until late in 2010, Ms. Brooks, Mr. Coulson and other officials at News International, the British newspaper arm of News Corporation, repeatedly asserted that the hacking had been limited to a single “rogue reporter” — the paper’s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman. The assertion was rendered implausible, at best, by the fact that the police had information that so many hacking victims existed, and that so few of them had anything to do with the royal family.
Monday’s disclosures could not have come at a more inopportune time for Mr. Murdoch. In recent weeks, morale at The Sun hit a low point after a number of senior editors and reporters were arrested on suspicion of illegally paying sources.
At the same time, journalists at The Sun and elsewhere released a stream of angry attacks at the police, saying the investigation had gone too far and was targeting reporters for what they said was normal behavior in the British tabloid press like taking sources out to lunch or paying whistle-blowers.
“The Sun journalists who have been arrested are not accused of enriching themselves — they were simply researching stories about scandals at hospitals, scandals at army bases and scandals in police stations that they believed their readers were entitled to know about,” Kelvin Mackenzie, a former editor of The Sun, wrote in The Daily Mail. “If the whistle-blower asks for money, so what?”
The Metropolitan Police Service’s highly unusual decision to release specific details of a continuing investigation seemed designed to rebut such criticism.
“The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials,” Ms. Akers said. “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 added: “Some of the initial e-mails reveal, upon further detailed investigation, multiple payments to individuals of thousands of pounds. In one case the figure, over several years, is in excess of 80,000 pounds,” or $125,000. “There is also mention in some e-mails of public officials being placed on ‘retainers.’ ”
E-mails show that one Sun journalist received more than $235,000 in cash over several years “to pay his sources, a number of whom were public officials,” Ms. Akers said.
Clearly, she said, the journalists knew that such behavior was illegal, judging from e-mail references to staff members’ “risking losing their pension or job” and to the need for “tradecraft” like keeping the payments secret or making payments to friends or relatives of the officials.
But regardless of what is happening at The Sun, the disgraced News of the World is still sullying Mr. Murdoch’s reputation seven months after its quick-and-dirty demise. Monday’s news about the 2006 e-mail regarding the paper and Ms. Brooks is problematic for the company, not least because of her close ties to Mr. Murdoch.
The e-mail was sent to Mr. Coulson on Sept. 15, 2006, from a News International lawyer, Tom Crone, according to Robert Jay, a lawyer for the Leveson Inquiry. The e-mail said Ms. Brooks had been told that the police had evidence that News International paid an investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, more than $1.5 million for his hacking work over a period of years, and that he had hacked the phones of dozens of people.
The revelation speaks to one of the key questions in the hacking inquiry: Who knew what, and when? Until 2010, Ms. Brooks, Mr. Coulson, Mr. Crone and other News International officials repeatedly declared that phone hacking at The News of the World was limited just to the royal correspondent, Mr. Goodman, who was jailed along with Mr. Mulcaire in 2007.
According to the e-mail, though, Ms. Brooks was told that the list of victims included people Mr. Goodman would have had no reason to write about as a royal correspondent. And it said she had been told, too, that the police had phone records showing that Mr. Mulcaire had frequent “sequences of contacts” with The News of the World before and after hacking victims’ phones.
In other testimony on Monday, a former high-ranking police officer said that News International had deliberately obstructed the police hacking operation in 2006 and that the Metropolitan Police Service had failed to conduct a robust investigation because of its close ties to the Murdoch newspapers. The company, said the officer, Brian Paddick, “simply stalled, or refused to answer questions or to provide documents, or falsely claimed to have provided all relevant information.”
And John Prescott, a former deputy prime minister in the Labour Party, laid out for the Leveson Inquiry how the police had repeatedly told him that he had not been a victim of phone hacking when, in fact, he had.
Speaking of the Metropolitan Police Service, Mr. Prescott said: “In my view, the M.P.S. has supported and assisted an organization guilty of criminal behavior.”
Ms. Akers said her investigation still had a long way to go. “We are nearer the start than the finish on this inquiry, and there remain a number of persons of interest,” she said. “These include journalists and public officials.”