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 into media standards, the Metropolitan Police'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 a new Sunday edition of The Sun – replacing the scandal-hit News of the World – Ms Akers said bribery had been "openly" discussed at the newspaper 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 that 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 into apparently rampant law-breaking at News International's headquarters in Wapping, east London.
Giving evidence at the start of the Leveson Inquiry's exploration of the relationship between the police and the press, Ms Akers told Lord Justice Leveson: "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 The Independent's exclusive on Saturday that News International's former chief executive 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 – which has been criticised for its previously cosy relationship with NI – 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 in another slew of embarrassing cases.
A total of 169 police officers and staff are manning Scotland Yard's investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking and corruption.
Following the arrest of The Sun's deputy editor, deputy news editor, chief reporter, chief foreign correspondent and picture editor on 11 February, the paper's veteran political commentator, Trevor Kavanagh, accused the police in print of launching a "witch-hunt" against journalists pursuing public-interest stories.
Ms Akers forcefully undermined those claims yesterday, painting 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.
Having launched the Sunday edition of The Sun at the weekend, Mr Murdoch sought yesterday to distance the daily newspaper from the bribery. "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."
Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has pursued the scandal, said: "A judge has revealed executive orders were given to delete evidence that could damage News International's defence in civil cases. Documents reveal that Rebekah Brooks was given an insider's access to an original police investigation in 2006. The police have revealed a system that operated a network of corrupt public servants. The executives involved should either resign or be fired."