Police investigating allegations that public officials unlawfully accepted money from journalists think they have uncovered a "network" of corruption, the Leveson Inquiry was told today.
Evidence gathered by the Metropolitan Police suggested a "culture of illegal payments" at The Sun newspaper, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told the inquiry into press standards.
Payments appeared to have authorised at a "senior level" within the newspaper and journalists recognised that "this behaviour" was "illegal", said Ms Akers, who is heading investigations.
Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation - which owns The Sun, later issued a statement saying the wrongdoing described no longer existed at the newspaper.
Ms Akers told Lord Justice Leveson, who is overseeing the inquiry, that "payments by journalists to public officials" had been identified in the "police, military, health and Government".
"The evidence suggests that payments were being made across all areas of public life," she said in a written statement to the inquiry.
"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 have been created to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money."
Emails seen by police indicated that payments to "sources" were openly referred to within The Sun.
"There is recognition by the journalists that this behaviour is illegal, reference being made to staff 'risking losing their pension or job', to the need for 'care' and to the need for 'cash payments'," Ms Akers added.
"The evidence further suggests that the authority level for such payments to be made is provided at a senior level within the newspaper."
She said cases being investigated did not involve "the odd drink or meal".
"Instead, these are cases in which arrests have been made involving the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to a small number of public officials," said Ms Akers.
"Some of the initial emails reveal, upon further detailed investigation, multiple payments to individuals of thousands of pounds."
In one case the "figure" over several years was more than £80,000 and there was "mention" in emails of public officials on "retainers", said DAC Akers.
One arrested journalist had, over several years, received more than £150,000 in cash to pay sources - a "number of whom were public officials", she added.
Ms Akers told the inquiry that 22 people had been "arrested and bailed" - 16 journalists, three police officers, a member of the armed forces, a member of the Ministry of Defence and a "person acting as a conduit to a public official".
"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," said Mr Murdoch, who yesterday launched The Sun on Sunday in the wake of the News of the World's closure last July, in the statement.
"That process is well under way. The practises 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 are investigating allegations of illegal payments by journalists and hacking.
Ms Akers said News International - part of News Corporation - had disclosed material indicating that police had been receiving payments from News of the World journalists last year.
News Corporation had established a management and standards committee which was responding to police requests for information.
She said the police's aim was to "identify criminality" not uncover "legitimate sources".
"The purpose of police action to date has been to proactively investigate the criminality which has been identified," added Ms Akers.
"The aim has never been to threaten the existence of The Sun."