Rupert Murdoch’s step-by-step retreat from his UK media interests has often been followed by yet more damning evidence about the extent of phone hacking and the alleged bribery of police and public officials. And so it was with the news that Murdoch was finally quitting as a director of his British newspapers: the announcement pre-empted another grim day at the Leveson Inquiry.
An update on the unparalleled inquiries into unlawful journalistic practices revealed that the investigation by the Metropolitan Police continues to break new ground.
Among the latest to be arrested for taking illegal payments from journalists were two officers at high security prisons; the newspapers involved were not only those of News International but also Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers; and some of the illicit information obtained by News International’s journalists had been downloaded from stolen mobile phones.
Lord Justice Leveson was so concerned by the fast-moving nature of the criminal investigation that he asked Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers to give him a further update in September so that his report, due out in the autumn, would be based on the latest information regarding arrests and possible prosecutions.
Murdoch’s announcement (21.7.2012) that he was resigning his directorships of The Times, Sunday Times and the Sun was described by News Corporation as “nothing more than corporate house-cleaning” after the decision in June to separate newspapers from its film and television interests.
But by withdrawing from his newspaper directorships Murdoch was also signalling his determination to try to limit any further collateral damage from any potential criticism levelled by the Leveson Inquiry. Who knows, by the time judge reports the Murdoch family might well be free of their UK newspapers?
Given the co-operation there has been between News International and the Metropolitan Police in the wake of the phone hacking scandal – following the handing over of a mass of emails and other documentation – Murdoch’s advisers would have been only too well aware that Sue Akers’ much-trailed update for the judge (23.7.2012) would raise fresh questions about the level of corporate governance at the Sun and the News of the World.
Perhaps of greatest significance was her revelation that the fifteen arrests of current and former journalists for phone hacking had been well and truly overtaken by those arrested for the alleged bribery and corruption public officials – twenty three so far.
Among the eighteen police, public officials and relatives who have been arrested were two officers at high security prisons. One of the prison officers received a total of nearly £35,000 from News International, Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers and another was paid in excess of £14,000 by Trinity Mirror. In both cases partners had acted as a conduit and helped to facilitate the payments.
Sue Akers also revealed that information obtained by journalists at News International included data downloaded from stolen mobile phones; one had been stolen in Manchester, the other in south-west London. Inquiries were continuing to see if these were “isolated examples or the tip of the iceberg.”
This was Akers’ third appearance before the inquiry. In February she revealed that journalists on the Sun had established a network of corrupted officials across public life and that delivery of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” had been authorised at “a very senior level within the newspaper.” One public official had been paid in excess of £80,000 and one Sun journalist had received £150,000 in cash to reimburse sources.
Lord Justice Leveson’s appeal to Sue Akers to keep him abreast of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation – and his request for a full update in September – reinforced the suspicion that the corruption of police and public officials through illegal payments for information might yet emerge as a far greater scandal than phone hacking.
Her evidence was further confirmation of the failure of the judge and the inquiry’s lead counsel Robert Jay QC to challenge Rupert Murdoch on the reasons why he thought a “culture of illegal payments” had become embedded within the journalistic practices of the Sun.
During the two days in April when Murdoch gave his evidence the cross examination concentrated on ethical lapses at the News of the World. Murdoch was clearly troubled by the arrest of Sun journalists – “great journalists, friends of mine” who had been with the paper for twenty to thirty years – but he was not challenged over Scotland Yard’s allegation in February that authorisation had been given at a senior level in the Sun for the payments of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” to police and public officials.
Although the Inquiry can take fresh evidence at any time – and will hold a full session in September – the closing submissions were a reminder of missed opportunities to hold Murdoch publicly to account.
Illustrations: Sunday Express, 22 July 2012; Daily Mirror, 28 February, 2012.