The only good news is that the claims that News International is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt have finally been revealed for the palpable nonsense they always were. Apart from that, the implications of Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry are uniformly appalling.
The scale of shady relations between journalists at The Sun and public officials – what Ms Akers damningly described as a "culture of illegal payments" to "a network of corrupt officials" – is shocking even to those who had suspicions that money was changing hands. The sums involved run into tens, even hundreds, of thousands of pounds, paid out to sources in the police, in government departments, in the armed forces.
This was not simply hospitality, a bottle of whisky at Christmas or a slap-up lunch. This was hard cash paid out using a system specifically designed to hide the identity of the recipients. Over several years, one contact received some £80,000. Nor can such bribes be justified on the basis of legitimate public interest. In the vast majority of cases, the information produced stories of "salacious gossip", in Ms Akers's words.
That the revelations from Operation Elveden came the day after the first issue of The Sun on Sunday can hardly be accidental. With so much dirty linen about to be so publicly aired, Rupert Murdoch had little choice but to launch his News of the World replacement immediately or risk losing the initiative. The launch smacked of bravado, and for the once-untouchable Mr Murdoch to tweet triumphantly about Sun on Sunday sales of 3.3 million even as the Leveson Inquiry heard evidence of endemic corruption at the daily, looks less like toughing it out and more like desperation.
Mr Murdoch should certainly be worried. He may argue that the practices Ms Akers describes are a thing of the past, and that he and his people are doing all they can to co-operate. Such claims may even be true. But they miss the point. However much may have changed since the dark days of phone hacking and endemic bribery, Mr Murdoch himself remains. In any other industry, a boss could not survive evidence of malpractice requiring no fewer than three separate police investigations. The media should be no different.
Neither is Mr Murdoch alone in the dock. The protestations of ignorance from NI executives – from Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and James Murdoch, to name but three – were suspect with regard to phone hacking; with regard to corrupt payments, they are laughable. It is simply not credible that a company was handing out tens of thousands of pounds without the management being aware of it, or knowing what the money was for. So far, it is journalists who have borne the brunt of Ms Akers's investigation. It is time to look higher up the chain.
Aside from the huge scale of dishonesty at The Sun, the most unsatisfactory aspect of this week's revelations is that progress has been so slow. The drip-drip of ever-more damaging allegations helps no one, either inside the media or out. Ms Akers must be given all necessary resources to expedite a swift conclusion. And with so much compelling evidence to hand, the priority must be to bring formal charges – not just against journalists, but also against those who sold information to them.
Contrary to the hysteria from News International's apologists, the bribery of officials cannot be automatically excused with recourse to the sacred freedoms of the press. In the service of tittle-tattle, it is simple, wanton law-breaking, an erosion of public institutions for which both the briber and the bribed must bear responsibility. Never mind the defensive rhetoric. The boil must be lanced.
For a guide to who's who at the Leveson Inquiry click HERE
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