Any reporter who has ever had to work in competition with the Sun has at last had confirmed what we have always suspected: the Sun’s unerring success in delivering exclusive stories was not always down journalistic initiative but all too often was the result of being able to offer folding money to reward contacts.
As Sue Akers gave her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry (27.2.2012) replaying in my mind were the many occasions when a disclosure by the Sun made my own story redundant; all my efforts were suddenly overtaken by sensational inside information.
In her evidence, the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of phone-hacking inquiries, described how the Metropolitan Police had discovered that the Sun had established a network of corrupt officials in public life; how, for example, over several years one contact was paid in excess of £80,000; and how one of nine arrested Sun journalists received £150,000 in cash to reimburse sources, a number of whom were public officials.
Many is the time I have had to follow up a Sun exclusive and marvelled at the paper’s ability to prize out information from what appeared to me and other rival journalists to be an impenetrable wall of silence.
No wonder Rupert Murdoch was so anxious to beat the gun with the launch of the Sun on Sunday (26.2.2012) and therefore pre-empt the first day of Police evidence to the Leveson Inquiry; nor was it a surprise that the paper should have set out in such detail its commitment in future to its journalists maintaining the highest “ethical behaviour.”
I speak from bitter experience having had to compete with the Sun ever since it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1969. Its growing supremacy in the 1970s was confirmed to me in the 1980s when as a labour affairs correspondent I was reporting the industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade.
All too often the Sun had the edge, perhaps revealing documentation from one of the former nationalised industries or an unexpected but well-sourced tip-off. Again when I returned to political reporting in the 1990s, the Sun’s run of exclusives – inside stories or perhaps yet another secret document – only confirmed what I knew all along, that when it comes to exclusives money talks.
Trevor Kevanagh, the Sun political commentator, admitted as much in his defence of his nine arrested colleagues, that “sometimes money changes hands” when gathering stories.
His assertion about the legality of this practice looks rather inopportune to say the least in view of the Sue Akers’ evidence. This was his defence of paying for stories: “This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad. There is nothing disreputable about it. And, as far as we know at this stage, nothing illegal.” (13.2.2012)
Sue Akers opened her evidence – at the direct request of Lord Justice Leveson – with a firm rebuttal of the suggestion that the arrest of the nine Sun journalists over alleged corrupt payments to public officials was endangering legitimate journalistic sources and therefore a threat to investigative journalism.
She said that News International’s management and standards committee, with whom the Police had established an effective working relationship, did not provide to the Police “any information about legitimate journalistic sources.” The committee sought to “protect legitimate sources at all times.”
Police inquiries had established that there was “a culture of payments” at the Sun and these were being paid to networks of corrupted officials across public life, including those working in the police, military, health service, prisons etc.
She described how systems had been created to facilitate the payments and how the journalists must have known their action was unlawful because they made cash payments in order to protect the officials involved who feared losing their jobs and pensions if identified. Cash payments were hidden by making them to a friend or relative and one of the officials arrested – along with the Sun’s nine journalists – was someone who had been a conduit for payments. Authority for the payments was made at a “very senior level.”
So far more journalists than corrupt public officials had been identified but the Metropolitan Police hoped to make further arrests. The cases where arrests had been made were not over “the odd drink or meal” but after the delivery of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to a small number of public officials.
There had been multiple payments to individuals of thousands of pounds and “in one case, over several years, in excess of £80,000, and some public officials placed on retainers.”
Sue Akers said that the Metropolitan Police were working closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to assess the public interest and protect genuine journalistic sources. “What I can indicate is that the vast majority of disclosures which have been made led salacious gossip rather than anything remotely in the public interest, even involving breach of trust and the invasion of the privacy of the individual...We have linked the payments to individual stories.”
Lord Justice Leveson said the importance of Sue Akers’ update on the progress of the inquiries by the Metropolitan Police was that it provided the context in which the inquiry was being conducted and there had been a “vast change” in that context as the evidence progressed.
The first edition of the Sun on Sunday said its journalists had to abide by the Press Complaints Commission’s editors’ code of practice, the industry standard for ethical behaviour, and the News Corporation Standards of Business Conduct.
“We will hold our journalists to the standards we expect of them. After all, a newspaper which holds the powerful to account must do the same with itself. You will be able to trust our journalists to abide by the values of decency as they gather news.”
And so too says every other journalist engaged in the process of gathering of news!
Ilustration: Sun on Sunday, 26 February, 2012 The Guardian, 28 February, 2012