Senior executives at The Sun spun a web of corruption across British public life, channelling hundreds of thousands of pounds into a network of crooked police and officials, according to the lead officer in Scotland Yard's investigations into the press.
In sensational evidence at the Leveson Inquiry, the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Sue Akers, revealed that a "culture of illegal payments" had taken grip of Britain's best-selling newspaper.
The day after Rupert Murdoch launched The Sun on Sunday Ms Akers said bribery was "openly" discussed at The Sun and that its journalists were well aware they were breaking the law.
"Multiple payments" were made to public officials in the government, police, military, prisons and health service, Ms Akers said. One public official was paid around £80,000 over a period of years and a Sun journalist received more than £150,000 to pay "sources", she said, adding the bribery was not unearthing stories in the public interest but "salacious gossip".
In the past month, nine senior journalists on The Sun have been arrested by the anti-corruption inquiry Operation Elveden, as the police step up their criminal investigations.
Giving evidence at the start of the Leveson Inquiry's exploration of the relationship between the police and the press, Ms Akers said: "The current assessment of the evidence is that it reveals a network of corrupted officials. There appears to have been a culture at The Sun of illegal payments and systems created to facilitate those payments."
The inquiry confirmed i's exclusive on Saturday that Rebekah Brooks received inside information from a senior policeman about the original phone-hacking inquiry at the News of the World six years ago.
Fresh evidence emerged that Scotland Yard knew that a large number of people had been hacked by the Sunday paper before senior officers insisted there had only been a handful of proven victims. Up to 250 individuals have demanded – or will shortly demand – compensation from News International for invasion of privacy.
Ms Akers painted a picture of an out-of-control news organisation where bribery was routine and sanctioned by executives.
Outlining the progress of Operation Elveden, she said payments had been made by journalists who were "well aware" that "what they were doing was unlawful".
The payments were not for hospitality – as claimed by some Sun journalists – but were "regular, frequent and sometimes significant" and included "multiple payments amounting to thousands of pounds", she said.
Journalists making the payments appeared to know they were illegal, admitting their jobs and pensions were at risk if caught; stressing the need for "care" and "cash payments"; and using "tradecraft" to cover up bribes by making payments to friends and relatives of corrupt informants.
Mr Murdoch said yesterday: "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.
"The practices Sue Akers described at the Leveson Inquiry are ones of the past and no longer exist at The Sun."
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