- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2012

LONDON — 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 British police officer said Monday.

Sue Akers, the Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, told Britain’s media ethics inquiry that the newspaper openly referred to paying its sources and that such payments were authorized at a senior level.

Commissioner Akers made her accusations a day after Mr. Murdoch launched the Sun on Sunday, a replacement for his News of the World tabloid, which he shut down in July when it became too tainted in Britain’s phone hacking scandal.

Her comments also came on the same day Mr. Murdoch’s company paid former teen singing sensation Charlotte Church $951,000 in a phone-hacking settlement for violating her and her family’s privacy.

Commissioner Akers said journalists paid not only police officers but also military, health and other government officials. One official received a total of $126,912 over several years, Commissioner Akers said, adding that police also are investigating whether officials were placed on retainers by newspapers.

She 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 Commissioner Akers, who is in charge of a police investigation into phone hacking and police bribery.

She said one journalist had “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 such as buying them a meal or a drink.

Commissioner Akers did not indicate when or if the payments had ended, but Mr. Murdoch insisted that practices at the Sun have 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. We have already emerged a stronger company.”

Police currently are holding three parallel investigations spawned by the tabloid phone hacking scandal, which grew out of revelations that journalists at Mr. Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid - the Sun’s sister paper - routinely intercepted voice mails of those in the public eye in a relentless search for scoops.

Mr. Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid 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.

Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp. now has acknowledged the practice was much more widespread.

Senior executives of Mr. Murdoch’s British newspaper division, including former News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, always have 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 the phones of royal aides on behalf of the tabloid.

But an email from the News of the World’s then-lawyer, Tom Crone, submitted to the media ethics inquiry suggests that both Mr. Coulson - who later became Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief - and Ms. Brooks knew in 2006 that police had a list of around 100 people who may have been targeted by Mr. Mulcaire.

A former senior police officer, Brian Paddick, also told the inquiry Monday that Mr. Mulcaire had information on the new identities of people who had been placed under the witness protection program.

“People are only put into the witness protection program when their lives are potentially at risk or in serious danger,” Mr. Paddick said. “For this to be in the hands of Mulcaire and potentially the News of the World is clearly worrying.”

News International, Mr. Murdoch’s British newspaper division, has paid several million pounds in damages and legal costs to dozens of phone hacking victims, including celebrities including Jude Law and crime victims such as the family of Milly Dowler, a murdered 13-year-old whose voicemails were intercepted in 2002.

Miss 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, Miss Church sharply criticized Mr. Murdoch’s empire, saying that 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.

The settlement to Miss Church includes $476,000 in legal costs and a public apology, but the singer said she did not believe News International’s apology was sincere.

“They are not truly sorry. They are just sorry they got caught,” she said.

British police and News Corp. lawyers are combing through millions of e-mails 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 of Mr. Murdoch’s 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.



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