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Culture of "illegal payments" at Murdoch's Sun newspaper

posted 27 Feb 2012, 10:49 by Mpelembe Admin   [ updated 27 Feb 2012, 10:50 ]

A senior London police officer tells a government inquiry there was a "culture" of "illegal payments" to public officials at The Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (FEBRUARY 27, 2012) (REUTERS) - Journalists at Britain's Sun newspaper paid large sums of cash to corrupt public officials, aware the practice was criminal, an inquiry into press ethics heard on Monday (February 27) , revelations that could prove damaging to Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

The police officer heading three criminal inquires centred on Murdoch's British newspaper arm, News International, said the Sun had operated a "culture ... of illegal payments".

"The payments have been made, not only to police officers, but to a wide range of public officials. So, there are categories - as well as police - military, health, government, prison and others," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told the inquiry.

"There also appears to have been a culture at The Sun of illegal payments and systems have been created to facilitate those payments, whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money. The emails indicate that payments to sources were openly referred to within The Sun and, in which case, the source is not named, but the category of public official is identified rather than the name," she said.

The disclosure could damage Murdoch's News Corp if it gives ammunition to the FBI and other American government agencies that have stepped up their hunt for signs of illegality at the U.S.-based company.

A case brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act could impose fines of millions of dollars and criminal charges against individuals.

The hearing was held one day after Murdoch launched a Sunday edition of the Sun in a bid to give the tabloid a boost after almost 10 members of staff were arrested by Akers' team.

The Sunday edition of the Sun replaced the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid which Murdoch closed in July amid public disgust at revelations journalists had been hacking voicemails, including those of a missing girl who was later found murdered.

Akers said her investigation indicated Sun reporters had made multiple payments to police officers and public officials, including some in the military.

"I mean not ones that involve just the odd drink or meal, to police officers or other public officials: these are cases in which arrests have been made involving the delivery of regular and frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists. Some of the initial emails reveal, upon analysis, that multiple payments have been made to individuals amounting to thousands of pounds. In one case, over a period of several years, this amounts to in excess of 80,000 pounds," Akers said.

Reporters were aware what their actions were unlawful, she added.

The three probes are into claims of phone-hacking, the hacking of emails and the bribing of officials for information.

Detectives have made some 40 arrests, with suspects ranging from former News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks to Andy Coulson, ex-editor of the News of the World and former media chief for Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as police officers and Ministry of Defence employees.

There are now almost 170 people working on the three inquiries, making the linked investigations one of the biggest ever conducted by London police.

It has had huge repercussions across the British establishment, leading to the resignation of Coulson, two top police officers and several News International executives.

Much of the information was provided to police by the secretive Management and Standards Committee (MSC), set up by Murdoch to examine 300 emails from News International for evidence of criminality.

After examining the stories which the alleged payments had produced, the vast majority seemed to be "salacious gossip" and not revelations of public interest, Akers said.

The phone-hacking saga began in late 2005 leading to the jailing of a reporter from the News of the World and a private detective for illegally accessing the voicemails of royal aides and other high-profile figures.

News International consistently claimed that the journalist was a "rogue reporter" and there was no evidence to suggest phone hacking was endemic.

However, last year it admitted the practice was more widespread and has paid significant sums to victims of hacking.

London High Court on Monday heard that one such victim, singer Charlotte Church, was paid 600,000 pounds in damages by the News of the World publishers in one of the largest settlements so far.