By allowing a newsroom culture to develop at the Sun and the News of the World which gave reporters the freedom to pay cash for unauthorised disclosures Rupert Murdoch opened the floodgates to the sale of dubious information to tabloid newspapers.
More than any other group the Murdoch press was responsible for fostering an expectation on the part of the British public that money can be made from the trade in private data, personal records, unauthorised tip-offs and the like.
As the number of arrests has continued to mount during the summer – especially for the alleged bribery and corruption of police and public officials – Lord Justice Leveson has insisted that his inquiry into media ethics must be fully briefed before completing its report in the autumn.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers has been asked to provide a full update at a special hearing in September. If looked at solely on the basis of the number of arrests, the phone hacking investigation is now being rapidly overtaken by what the judge concedes are the two other “fast moving” inquiries which began once potentially incriminating evidence started being hand over to the Metropolitan Police by News International.
During the two days he gave evidence in late April, Murdoch was not asked either by Robert Jay QC or the judge to explain let alone seek to justify the extent to which his newspapers had monetised the gathering of unlawful disclosures.
By resigning in late July from the directorships of his British newspapers Murdoch continued his step-by-step retreat from the UK, putting further distance between himself and any potential criticism which might emerge in the judge’s report.
Yet tucked away in a written statement to the Leveson Inquiry by the former chief executive Rebekah Brooks is the clearest possible insight into the way paying cash for stories became embedded at Wapping within the editorial structures of News International – an arrangement which was well within Murdoch’s responsibility for corporate governance.
When pieced together with other evidence dating back to the 1990s Ms Brooks’ testimony helps to explain how the ability of reporters to reimburse their sources with cash morphed into the monster of phone hacking.
Her witness statement signed in October 2011 – four months before the arrest of nine Sun journalists for alleged bribery and corruption – sets out the procedure she had known during her ten years as a News International editor for using “external providers of information...not just private investigators but also individual sources.”
Senior journalists who had their “own sources” had access to the “payment process”; the editor would only get involved when a large one-off cash payment “would break the weekly run rate” for payments which had been determined by the managing editor.
“That’s fine” was the opinion of the Sun’s former editor Kelvin MacKenzie when in 1998 he wrote in The Times about the ethics of paying police officers for tip offs. A decade later in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry he said he would not have been surprised if police officers had been paid by the Sun but in his day as editor only “anything costing more than around £3,000” would have crossed his desk.
Even after the arrest of nine Sun journalists in January 2012, the paper’s long-serving political commentator Trevor Kavanagh was still defending cash payments. Sometimes money had changed hands when the Sun covered stories involving whistleblowers – “standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed here and abroad.”
The thousands of British reporters who have never paid cash for stories in the way Kavanagh suggested have taken no comfort from the update Sue Akers gave in late July: Twenty-three current and former journalists are among the forty-one arrested for the alleged bribery and corruption of police officers and public officials; this follows the earlier arrest of fifteen journalists for phone hacking; and a further six arrests for computer hacking and downloading information from stolen mobile phones.
A fuller version of this article will appear in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, second edition, to be published in September by Abramis.