Investigators looking into alleged corrupt practices at News Corp’s UK newspapers suspect that cash payments worth more than £100,000 were made to police officers and other public officials, one person familiar with the investigation said.
News Corp’s management and standards committee, set up after the News of the World phone hacking scandal convulsed the News International newspaper division last July, has been under fire from reporters for passing information to police that has led to the arrests of nine journalists at The Sun.
On Wednesday, a person with knowledge of the investigation dismissed claims that journalists were being penalizedfor innocuous lunches with sources. “This is not about sources or expenses,” he said: “This is an investigation into serious suspected criminality over a sustained period.”
He added: “It involves regular cash payments totaling tens of thousands of pounds a year for several years to public officials, some of whom were effectively on a retainer to provide information. In totality, it involves a six-figure sum.”
The comments came after the National Union of Journalists said it had taken advice from John Hendy QC about the legality of the committee handing over information, exposing confidential sources to the Metropolitan Police, and was considering whether to pursue legal action.
The NUJ said it had been approached not only by journalists at The Sun but also by civil servant whistleblowers who are frightened about their confidential conversations with journalists being disclosed and who want to understand their legal rights.
Writing in The Times, which is also owned by News International, Geoffrey Robertson QC, a leading human rights lawyer, said on Wednesday that members of the management and standards committee should be required to “learn by heart” a leading judgment of the European Court of Human Rights relating to the protection of journalistic sources.
“If journalists cannot promise anonymity to sources and keep that solemn promise there would be a lot less news and what there was would be less reliable,” he wrote. “How else did the Daily Telegraph avoid prosecution for paying a substantial sum for details of MPs expenses?”
The committee was not so much “draining the swamp”, as one representative had described its work, as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, Mr. Robertson said, adding that tabloid journalists should “stop bashing the European Court of Human Rights” and start using it to protect their own rights and those of their readers.
Both News Corp and the management and standards committee declined to comment.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, called on Sun journalists to join the union, saying: “The NUJ can defend staff at the Sun, and elsewhere in News International, and represent them against a management that seems prepared to throw them to the wolves.”
“We have been approached by a group of journalists from The Sun. We are now exploring a number of ways to support them, including discussing legal redress,” she said. “If journalists are not allowed to offer protection to their sources – often brave people who are raising their heads above the parapet to disclose information – then the free press in the UK is dead.”