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02.27.12

Culture of Illegal Payments Rampant at The Sun, Says Top Cop Sue Akers

A day after Rupert Murdoch debuted his Sun on Sunday in an effort to move past the phone-hacking scandals, officials began looking into practices of former Sun journalists. Mike Giglio reports.

Rupert Murdoch billed yesterday’s much-ballyhooed launch of his Sun on Sunday tabloid as the start of a new era for his U.K. media empire. But today he received a stark reminder of how much the old reputation of phone hacking and other allegedly corrupt practices still haunts his newspapers.

The Leveson inquiry, launched last year after the phone-hacking scandal brought down Murdoch’s News of the World, kicked back into gear on Monday after a brief hiatus with a new and explosive topic at hand: the relationship between journalists and police. This has been the subject driving a recent spate of arrests of senior Sun journalists, as part of an investigation into tabloid payments to public officials. The arrests prompted a wave of staff discontent and led some to question whether the paper might be shuttered. Instead, Murdoch doubled down by launching a new Sunday edition of his beloved paper. The editorial in yesterday’s inaugural edition, titled “A New Sun Rises Today,” promised readers that they’d be able to “trust our journalists to abide by the values of decency as they gather news.”

The Sun’s promise for a fresh start came not a moment too soon. Today Sue Akers—the top cop leading the phone hacking and related investigations for Scotland Yard—took to the witness stand at the Leveson inquiry to describe in cutting detail what she called “a culture at the Sun of illegal payments.” (The full transcript of her testimony can be found here [PDF].)

The inquiry went on to spell out a description of what that statement entailed, expanding the categories of corruption beyond police to military, health, government, and prison officials, among others. “The evidence suggests that such payments were being made to public officials across all areas of public life,” Akers said. “The current assessment of the evidence is that it reveals a network of public officials.”

Part of this so-called culture, Akers said, involved covering up the payments. She said journalists knew they were doing something illegal and made references in emails “to the need for ‘care’ and to the need for ‘cash payments’.” The payments, she added, were also hidden by directing them to a friend or relative of the source. “The evidence further suggests that the authority level for such payments to be made is provided at a senior level within the newspaper,” Akers testified.

The cases currently under investigation by Scotland Yard, Akers said, involve “the delivery of regular, frequent, and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists”—in one case, she claimed, for more than £80,000 over several years. One journalist allegedly received more than £150,000 in cash to pay sources, including public officials, Akers said. “There is also mention in some emails of public officials being placed on ‘retainers.’”

None of the journalists arrested so far have been charged.

After Akers’s testimony, Murdoch quickly issued a rebuttal. “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. “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.”

The mogul also noted on Twitter that the first Sun on Sunday issue had done well: “Amazing! The Sun confirmed sale of 3,260,000 copies yesterday. Thanks all readers and advertisers. Sorry if sold out—more next time.”

But even as Murdoch looks to The Sun’s future, Akers’s revelations at the Leveson inquiry could spell trouble for two of the mogul’s former top lieutenants, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson—both of whom have previously denied that they knew about the alleged phone hacking while it was taking place. An email from News International lawyer Tom Crone to Coulson dated September 15 2006, which was submitted to the Leveson inquiry as evidence today, suggests that both Brooks and Coulson were well aware of the phone-hacking problems at the time. It also suggests that Brooks was getting details of a phone-hacking investigation leaked to her by someone in Scotland Yard.

Brooks, Coulson, and other senior News International executives have maintained that, until 2010, they thought the phone-hacking problem was confined to just a single “rogue reporter,” royal correspondent Clive Goodman. But the email, based on information that Crone identifies as having been passed to him by Brooks after her conversation with a police source, makes surprising admissions. The police investigation, the email said, had identified at least 100 potential victims of purported hacker Glenn Mulcaire, from areas of life as varied as politics and “showbiz”—which would have been well outside of Goodman’s beat. Police, the email said, knew that Mulcaire had received more than £1 million in payments over the years.

An email presented as evidence at the Leveson inquiry suggests that Rebekah Brooks was getting details of a phone-hacking investigation leaked to her by someone in Scotland Yard.

Titled “Strictly private and confidential,” the email begins, “Andy, here’s [sic] Rebekah told me about info relayed to her by cops.” The correspondence goes on to relay information such as that “the recordings and notes demonstrate a pattern of “victims” … replaced by the next one who becomes flavour of the week/month.” “They suggested,” the email continues, “News of the World journalists directly accessing the voicemails.”

“They are going to contact RW,” the email concludes—a presumed reference to Rebekah Wade, which was Rebekah Brooks’ name at the time—“today to see if she wishes to take it further.”

As of press time, Brooks nor Coulson had not commented on the Leveson email.