‘Corrupted’: Police admit public officials received illegal payments

By Alex Stevenson

Journalists at the Sun newspaper used illegal payments to public officials to win exclusive stories, the chief police officer probing phone-hacking said today.

Deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers told the Leveson inquiry a "culture of illegal payments" existed at the Murdoch-owned tabloid which saw one individual receive over £80,000.

She said the Metropolitan police had evidence journalists used retainers to maintain relationships with their contacts, some of which were corrupt. One journalist received £150,000 in cash to pay his or her sources, it was alleged.

"The journalists had a network upon which to call at various strategic places across public life," Ms Akers explained.

This "network of corrupt officials" was serviced through "tradecraft" techniques which transferred payments secretly by using cash, or through the bank accounts of relatives or friends of the source.

In her written statement, she explained: "The cases we investigated are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials.

"Instead, these are cases in which arrests have been made involving the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists."

Rupert Murdoch moved quickly to insist action had been taken to end "prior wrongdoing" at News International.

"The practices Sue Akers described at the Leveson inquiry are ones of the past, and no longer exist at the Sun. We have already emerged a stronger company," he said.

Ms Akers said the police investigation was establishing evidence of payments linked to specific news articles which reflected both breach of trust by public officials and breach of privacy.

Her comments come as the focus of the Leveson inquiry into the culture, ethics and practice of the press moves to the relationship between police and journalists.

Earlier this month a judicial review found the Metropolitan police's failure to notify victims of phone-hacking had been unlawful.

The review, brought forward by Lord Prescott, Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate Brian Paddick and Labour MP Chris Bryant led to a concession by the Met that its original 2006 investigation into phone-hacking had fallen short.

The Met had earlier claimed the "unprecedented increase in anti-terrorist investigations" was to blame for the limited parameters of the 2006 probe.

Its legal representative at the inquiry, Neil Garnham QC, told Lord Justice Leveson that critics of the police were in danger of "looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope", as it was far from clear private investigator Glenn Mulcaire's notes that a large number of people were victims of phone-hacking.

Lord Justice Leveson expressed doubts that the Met should not have realised that News International's insistence that phone-hacking was restricted to a single rogue journalist was wrong.

Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrats' London mayoral candidate and a former deputy assistant commissioner at the Met, said he had been told by Met officers that there was "no evidence of illegal interception or monitoring of his phone" – despite the fact his name appeared under the heading of a "project" in Mulcaire's notes.

He also voiced concern about "public perceptions" surrounding the Met's current probe into phone-hacking, asking: "Does the public really believe this is being thoroughly investigated?"

Mr Paddick later added: "Some people may not be convinced by the current arrangements and it may be better if it were an outside force that is investigating."

Lord Prescott said he had every confidence in Ms Akers' probe, but accused police of a "conspiracy of silence" over their original investigation into phone-hacking.

The deputy prime minister did not hold back as he assessed the 2006 probe into phone-hacking – which failed to notify him that his phone had been accessed 44 times.

The Met failed to contradict News International's public claims that phone-hacking went beyond one rogue reporter at the News of the World, as they claimed at the time.

Lord Prescott asked: "How much evidence do you want, unless you don't want to look for it?"

Lord Justice Leveson told him: "I'm sure you've heard the phrase containing the words cock up and conspiracy before."

Lord Prescott replied: "I don't go with cock-up. These are highly paid, highly intelligent people. I think there's more a conspiracy of silence to hide the facts, and frankly I'm strongly of that view in the last few months."

The Hacked Off campaign said the public needed to be able to trust the police to protect them.

"When it came to phone-hacking, there was a grotesque breach of trust between the police and those they were meant to protect," it said in a statement.

Attention after today's hearings will focus on Thursday's evidence sessions, when Peter Clarke, the former deputy assistance commissioner who led the day-to-day work of the 2006 phone-hacking inquiry and former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, his direct superior at the time, will appear.

Ex-commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and ex-assistant commissioner John Yates, who resigned last year over the employment of former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis, are also slated to give evidence.