* Widespread illegal payments by UK Murdoch tabloid -police
* Disclosure comes day after new edition launched
* Murdoch's UK arm pays 600,000 pounds to Charlotte Church
* Email suggested company knew hacking widespread -lawyer
By Michael Holden
LONDON, Feb 27 Journalists at Britain's
Sun newspaper paid large sums of cash to corrupt public
officials, aware the practice was criminal, an inquiry into
press ethics heard on Monday, revelations that could prove
damaging to Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
The police officer heading three criminal inquires centred
on Murdoch's British newspaper arm, News International, said the
Sun had operated a "culture ... of illegal payments".
"The current assessment is that it reveals a network of
corrupted officials," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers
told the inquiry.
"There appears to have been a culture at the Sun of illegal
payments, and systems have been created to facilitate those
payments whilst hiding the identity of officials receiving the
The disclosure could damage Murdoch's News Corp if
it gives ammunition to the FBI and other American government
agencies that have stepped up their hunt for signs of illegality
at the U.S.-based company.
A case brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act could
impose fines of millions of dollars and criminal charges against
The hearing was held one day after Murdoch launched a Sunday
edition of the Sun in a bid to give the tabloid a boost after
almost 10 members of staff were arrested by Akers'
The Sunday edition of the Sun replaced the 168-year-old News
of the World tabloid which Murdoch closed in July amid public
disgust at revelations journalists had been hacking voicemails,
including those of a missing girl who was later found murdered.
Akers said her investigation indicated Sun reporters had
made multiple payments to police officers and public officials,
including some in the military.
One individual had been paid around 80,000 pounds over a
number of years while one Sun reporter had been given 150,000
pounds cash to pay his sources, she said.
Reporters were aware what their actions were unlawful, she
"That's really by reference to comments being made in staff
risking losing their pension or their job, the need for care and
the need for cash payments," Akers said.
The three probes are into claims of phone-hacking, the
hacking of emails and the bribing of officials for iformation.
Detectives have made some 40 arrests, with suspects ranging
from former News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks to
Andy Coulson, ex-editor of the News of the World and former
media chief for Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as police
officers and Ministry of Defence employees.
There are now almost 170 people working on the three
inquiries, making the linked investigations one of the biggest
ever conducted by London police.
It has had huge repercussions across the British
establishment, leading to the resignation of Coulson, two top
police officers and several News International executives.
Much of the information was provided to police by the
secretive Management and Standards Committee (MSC), set up by
Murdoch to examine 300 emails from News International for
evidence of criminality.
After examining the stories which the alleged payments had
produced, the vast majority seemed to be "salacious gossip" and
not revelations of public interest, Akers said.
The phone-hacking saga began in late 2005 leading to the
jailing of a reporter from the News of the World and a private
detective for illegally accessing the voicemails of royal aides
and other high-profile figures.
News International consistently claimed that the journalist
was a "rogue reporter" and there was no evidence to suggest
phone hacking was endemic.
However, last year it admitted the practice was more
widespread and has paid significant sums to victims of hacking.
London High Court on Monday heard that one such victim,
singer Charlotte Church, was paid 600,000 pounds in damages by
the News of the World publishers in one of the largest
settlements so far.
The court also heard 56 out of 61 claims against the paper
had now been settled but at least another 194 cases were being
considered. A provisional trial date for February next year was
set for those not already settled.
Critics say some senior News International figures knew far
earlier than they had admitted that more staff were involved but
kept quiet to protect the company's reputation.
The inquiry heard that a senior police officer had briefed
Brooks in September 2006, disclosing that 1 million pounds had
been paid to the private detective who was later jailed and that
there were more than 100 potential victims.
That information was circulated more widely within the
company in an email from News International's legal chief Tom
Crone to Coulson, said Robert Jay, the lawyer to the inquiry.
(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Robin