LONDON (Reuters) - British police, investigating allegations of phone-hacking centred on Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, charged the deputy editor of his top-selling Sun tabloid on Wednesday with making illegal payments to public officials.
Geoff Webster is the latest senior figure from News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp, to be accused of criminal offences in a scandal which has rocked the media mogul’s empire and escalated into a crisis embroiling the entire industry and the political establishment.
Dozens of current and former staff from Murdoch’s Sun and News of the World newspapers have been arrested by police since early 2011 when detectives re-launched an inquiry into allegations journalists had repeatedly hacked into voicemails of mobile phones to find exclusive stories.
Inquiries later were extended to cover allegations journalists paid cash to public officials in return for information.
Police and prosecutors said Webster, 53, would face two charges of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office, which related to payments of 6,500 pounds ($9,800) and 1,500 pounds made to two officials between July 2010 and August 2011.
Webster will appear at London’s Westminster Magistrates’ court on March 26. In an email to staff, News International’s chief executive Mike Darcey said they would be supporting their “long-standing and valued colleague”, during the legal process.
Revelations that phone-hacking extended from celebrities and politicians to crime victims, including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, caused public outrage and led to Murdoch closing down the News of the World.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s former media chief Andy Coulson, who was editor of the News of the World between 2003 and 2007, and Rebekah Brooks, the former boss of News International and a confidante of Murdoch, are among those charged with criminal offences.
News International has already paid out millions in compensation to victims, but in recent weeks the scandal has again risen to prominence.
Last month, detectives arrested six people as part of an investigation into a second hacking conspiracy at the News of the World, which lawyers said could result in hundreds of new compensation claims.
Earlier this week, News International also paid substantial damages and apologized after admitting journalists from the Sun had accessed private information from the mobile phone stolen from an opposition lawmaker.
That came on the day Britain’s main political parties agreed to set up a new press regulator with the power to levy fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) and oblige papers to print prominent apologies, after a public inquiry said a new system was needed in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.
($1 = 0.6615 British pounds)
additional reporting by Kate Holton