Nothing like this has happened to a newspaper before. Two weeks ago the executive editor of The Sun, Fergus Shanahan, was arrested with four other former or current journalists on the paper. That was bad enough, but the arrest on Saturday of five senior employees, including joint deputy editor Geoff Webster and chief reporter John Kay, has turned a crisis into something close to a calamity.
Amazingly, these Sun journalists, arrested over alleged corrupt payments to the police, are being shipped by their own parent company, News Corp. The so-called Management and Standards Committee (MSC), which has been passing emails to the Operation Elveden police investigation, is answerable to the board of News Corp, rather than to Rupert Murdoch, the company's chairman, or James Murdoch, chairman of News International, the British operation.
The MSC is run by Lord Grabiner a Labour peer and QC; Simon Greenberg, head of corporate affairs at News International; and his friend, Will Lewis, general manager. So independent are they that they did not give Rupert and James Murdoch or Tom Mockridge, chief executive of News International, or Dominic Mohan, editor of The Sun, prior notice of the arrests two weeks ago, and it is doubtful whether they did so on Saturday.
Mr Lewis, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and one of the most ambitious men on the planet, is believed to be the Torquemada of this operation. He presumably thinks he is serving the interests of Rupert Murdoch, who has to show the board and shareholders of News Corp that he is rooting out every rotten apple. According to journalists on The Sun, as well as the National Union of Journalists, Mr Lewis and his fellow inquisitors are involved in a "witch-hunt".
It is illegal to pay police or other public servants for information, though in some cases a public interest defence might be entered. After all, The Daily Telegraph paid £150,000 for a computer disk made by officials which revealed the scandal of MPs expenses. (The paper's then editor was Will Lewis.) We don't know what the arrested Sun journalists are supposed to have done since no charges have yet been brought against them.
But the actions of the Management and Standards Committee could compromise the anonymity of sources if proceedings are brought. A police officer, a member of the armed forces and a Ministry of Defence employee, all of them unnamed, were arrested along with the five Sun journalists on Saturday, and an unidentified police officer was arrested with the four journalists two weeks ago. These and other sources will have spoken to The Sun on condition of anonymity, yet the MSC is evidently prepared to break a sacred undertaking.
What is clear is that Rupert Murdoch is no longer running the show. Before flying to London, he told Mr Mockridge he has no intention of closing The Sun, but it may no longer be within his power to stop it. This story is spinning out of his, or anyone else's, control. We don't know whether charges will be brought against the Sun journalists, but it seems clear that Operation Elveden, which will soon have 61 police officers at its disposal, is looking for scalps.
The closure of The Sun is not unimaginable. If Mr Murdoch can shut down the News of the World, he can shut down The Sun. But it seems more likely that he will be forced by News Corp to dispose of the daily red top, which is becoming an embarrassment to the company. In that case, the obvious buyer would be the pornographer Richard Desmond, owner of the Express titles and Channel Five, which would be a far worse outcome. The Times and The Sunday Times would have to be sold since they are kept going by cross subsidy from The Sun. We may be witnessing the implosion of the Murdoch empire in Britain, which I don't welcome because I believe that what follows will be worse.
Whatever happens, the whole of the media is likely to suffer as a result of The Sun's excesses. The sight of policemen and other public officials being arrested, and in due course probably exposed and charged, is bound to deter other public employees from talking to the media on any terms. Much of what we know about the secret workings of government, the criminal justice system, the police and other public bodies we learn only because officials are prepared to talk privately to the media, usually without payment. This invaluable interchange is now being threatened.
Damning admission that will soon be forgotten
One person who may be relieved by The Sun's dramas is James Harding, editor of its stablemate, The Times. Last week he admitted to the Leveson Inquiry not only that evidence of his paper's involvement in email hacking was withheld from the High Court, but also that he became personally aware of it before the judge concerned had delivered his ruling, and yet failed to inform him. In normal circumstances this might be considered quite a damning admission. As it is, it will be soon forgotten.