The Sun newspaper vainly turned to Downing Street for support yesterday as it sought to generate a backlash to what it described as a "witch hunt" police investigation into the alleged bribery of public officials by its journalists.
The newspaper's Associate Editor Trevor Kavanagh was given a platform by editor Dominic Mohan to claim that News International journalists were "being treated like members of an organised crime gang".
Yesterday morning, a Sun journalist invited Downing Street to agree that the police had deployed a disproportionate number of officers to investigating allegations of criminality at NI. Downing Street responded: "It is for the police to decide how they deploy police officers."
Mr Kavanagh, for years the paper's political editor, then went on a tour of broadcast appearances that included Radio 4's The World At One, Sky News's Boulton & Co and Richard Bacon's show on Radio 5 Live. In the latter interview, Mr Kavanagh accused the News Corporation Management & Standards Committee (MSC) of "actually boasting" that its work was "putting people in police cells".
What was extraordinary about these criticisms of Rupert Murdoch's company is that they were being made not just by a senior employee but by a Murdoch ultra-loyalist, apparently with the sanction of the editor of News Corp's most popular British newspaper.
During the day, Sky video of Mr Kavanagh's attack was placed on The Sun's website and his outburst in the newspaper was vigorously re-Tweeted by the paper's official Twitter account, and by Mr Kavanagh's newsroom colleagues. This was open rebellion. NI sister paper The Times was briefed that Sun journalists were being thrown to the police simply for taking contacts out for a £50 lunch.
The level of anger is great because the arrested journalists include some of the most respected figures in The Sun's newsroom. The picture editor John Edwards, who was one of those raided on Saturday morning, is the son of the famous Sun photographer Arthur Edwards, a favourite of the Royal family. Another was deputy editor Geoff Webster, who is married to Alison Webster, the photographer who takes the paper's Page Three topless photographs.
Two more of those held, John Kay and Nick Parker, are among the paper's finest story-getters and have dedicated their careers to The Sun. Both are very well connected in government departments and Kay has twice been named Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards. A veteran in his late 60s, he was persuaded by NI executives not to retire.
Following the previous arrests of other newsroom big hitters such as crime editor Mike Sullivan and district reporter Jamie Pyatt, famed for his Royal scoops from Windsor Castle, The Sun's editor must feel shorn of talent.
Mr Mohan edited the paper on Sunday and a bumper edition of 104 pages was produced, 16 more than usual. On page 12 came Mr Kavanagh's tirade.
In his article,he claimed it was common for journalists to pay for information and that Sun reporters were being treated like "suspected terrorists" for having done something that "has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed here and abroad".
In fact, the cash culture at NI tabloids has long been different from that on most other titles. In the period under investigation, many experienced Sun journalists became used to going to the ground floor "cashiers" to obtain wads of cash to entertain or pay contacts. In return for signed chits, sums of £500 or £1,000 were readily handed over by women sitting behind a screen of reinforced glass. One former NI executive said: "It was very tempting to go downstairs and reward your contact so that they didn't go off to a rival paper."
Mr Kavanagh also suggested that the Met investigation into journalistic malpractice was being "driven by politicians". The reality is that it is being propelled by detectives angry at the damage the phone hacking scandal and allegations of corrupt officers has caused to the Yard's reputation.
The ferocity of the police action has caused News Corp's MSC to plead with the Met to be less aggressive, a gesture which may be designed to quell dissent inside the company. The action does not guarantee respite. Suddenly The Sun, a title that for decades has fought with the Daily Mail to be considered "the copper's paper", finds itself being thoroughly turned over by the police.
Steve Richards opinion, page 16
Who's who: The rival camps
Editor Dominic Mohan yesterday sanctioned one of his most senior writers, Associate Editor Trevor Kavanagh, to pen a provocative article criticising the investigation into the paper's journalists as a "witch hunt".
With Britain's once most powerful newspaper stable in meltdown, News Corp veteran Tom Mockridge was called in to clean up the mess. But as the arrests continue, he is struggling to win the trust of the journalists under his command.
Set up by News Corp following criticisms that the company had failed to react properly to the phone hacking scandal, the committee, headed by Lord Grabiner QC finds itself accused of going too far in probing bribery.
As the phone hacking scandal escalated, News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch set up the Management & Standards Committee as a way of showing good corporate governance and giving his British newspapers a clean bill of health. Its findings have contributed to one title being closed and another now standing on the brink.