REPORTING FROM LONDON -– Payments to police and public officials in return for information on celebrities and names in the public domain for stories dealing with little more than "salacious gossip" were common practice at News Corp.-owned tabloids, a British police official said Monday.
Deputy Chief Commissioner Sue Akers made the statement in an ongoing civil inquiry into media practices and ethics triggered by the phone-hacking scandal that broke last summer when it was revealed that the News of the World, owned by News Corp., had hacked into the cellphone of teenage rape and murder victim Milly Dowler.
News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch closed the popular tabloid following a public outcry.
Set in motion by Prime Minister David Cameron, the inquiry began a new phase Monday, looking at relations between the media and public officials. So far, it has revealed a widespread culture of phone hacking and surveillance of newsworthy people by journalists that had been all but ignored by police over the last decade.
Monday's evidence revealed long-standing illegal payments to police and public officials by journalists working for two of Murdoch's tabloids, the News of the World and the Sun.
Speaking after a recent slew of arrests of public officials and Sun journalists in connection with suspected bribery, Akers, head of one of several police inquiries going through about 300 million confiscated emails for information on illegal media practices and relations between journalists and officials, said, "The current assessment is that there was a network of corrupted officials. ... There appears to have been a culture at the Sun of illegal payments and systems created to facilitate those payments."
One journalist had drawn a total of over 150,000 pounds -– about $220,000 -- over recent years for payments to public officials, she said.
The revelations come a day after Murdoch launched his new Sun on Sunday tabloid. In a statement after Akers presented her evidence, he vowed "to get to the bottom of prior wrongdoings. ... The practices Sue Akers described ... are ones of the past, and no longer exist at The Sun. We have already emerged a stronger company."
News International, the British arm of News Corp., has agreed to pay millions of dollars in damages after successful legal claims by phone-hacking victims, including actors Jude Law and Sienna Miller. At the same time, Murdoch and son James, chairman of News International, have denied knowledge that phone hacking was conducted by more than one or two rogue journalists at the News of the World.
On Monday, Charlotte Church, the singer whose audiences have included Pope John Paul II and former President Clinton, was awarded over $950,000 in damages from News Corp. in connection with illegal phone taps and surveillance by tabloid journalists.
High Court Judge Geoffrey Vos told a hearing that Church and her parents had been pursued by reporters and photographers since 2002, when the singer was 16. Illegal phone-hacking and constant surveillance resulted in 33 articles on the singer and her family in the now-defunct News of the World, he said.
In an angry statement after the hearing, the 26-year-old singer, who had been present in court, told a crowd of reporters that she was "sickened and disgusted" by what she had learned about the practices of those "who pursued me and my family just to make money for a multinational news corporation."
Her parents had "been harassed," she said, and her mother "bullied into revealing her own private medical condition."
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-- Janet Stobart
Photo: British singer Charlotte Church reads a statement to the media outside a central London court on Monday following the settlement of her legal action against the publishers of now-defunct newspaper News of the World over allegations of phone hacking. Credit: Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images