For media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the Feb. 26 launch of the Sun on Sunday must have brought a degree of relief. On one level it fills the gap created by the closure of the disgraced News of the World. As he expressed rather excitedly on Twitter late last night, “Reports early, but new Sun edition sold 3m” — far more than the 2 million he had hoped for.
On another level — and one far more important for a company some now associate with sleaze and alleged criminality — it serves as a handy p.r. talisman in News International’s efforts to restore its credibility. The paper played it safe — and critics yawned. “The Sun on Sunday was the Sun — but not the Sun as we know it,” Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade wrote. “In order to avoid giving offence and therefore hint at being a reincarnation of its deceased ugly sister, it appeared unusually bland.” The cover story recounts how British actress Amanda Holden came close to death during a cesarean section. In a first-person narrative, the daughter of a lunch lady boasts about her supposedly lavish lifestyle. Even the trademark Page 3 Girl seemed tamer. She was still topless, but this time editors covered her nipples.
The (relative) move away from sleaze may continue. Even so, any positive p.r. associated with it already seems short-lived. That’s because at Monday’s Leveson Inquiry into culture, practices and ethics of U.K. media, Sue Akers, the policewoman leading the British Metropolitan Police’s investigation into allegations of phone hacking, dropped a new bombshell by revealing that police are probing a “culture of illegal payments” at the Sun newspaper. She preempted any suggestion that this culture flourished in the lower ranks without any oversight, claiming that senior-level managers authorized payments allegedly made by the newspaper.
Besides sullying the reputation of those journalists under investigation, her team’s efforts could send shock waves through London’s corridors of power. She said that the investigation was also looking into a “network of corrupted officials.”
“The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials,” she said. “Instead, these are cases in which arrests have been made involving the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists.”
In one example, she cited a journalist that had been given $238,000 over several years to pay sources. In another, journalists allegedly paid a public employee $127,000.
And while the police have clearly turned up the heat on journalists in recent months, it comes after accusations they failed to investigate wrongdoing in the first place. John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, also gave testimony on Monday afternoon. He pointed out that the Met Police have, in recent memory, balked at the idea of investigating phone hacking. In 2009, after the Guardian reported that journalists at the News of the World were engaged in widespread phone hacking, the police told him there was no evidence Prescott had been targeted. In January 2012, News International apologized to him in court and agreed to a $63,000 settlement after it was claimed they had put him under surveillance.
Prescott praised Akers’ work, but he wondered aloud whether police had “withheld the truth” over the severity of phone hacking. “I think there is a conspiracy of silence to hide the facts, and frankly I am stronger of that view in the last few months,” he said.
Brian Paddick, the former Met Police deputy assistant commissioner, leveled even more explosive accusations. He claimed that Scotland Yard leaked highly sensitive information about a witness under police protection to Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the center of the Hackgate scandal. “If information had leaked from the witness-protection unit to the News of the World, this could have serious consequences for those individuals under protection,” he said in a statement he read to the inquiry. “The whole thing appears to have been covered up.”
Ahead of the Feb. 27 inquiry, the Sun printed an article entitled “Sun’s Day,” celebrating the Sun on Sunday launch. Boasting about “sellouts” at newsstands and fans “eager to get their hands on the historic edition,” it included quotes — that seemed more than a bit manicured — about how fantastic the new product is. “I absolutely love the Sun and I’ll be buying it every Sunday,” one woman is quoted as saying. “It appeals to women as much as men because it gets to the point and does it with a sense of humour.”
If police can back up their latest accusations, more laughs — directed at Murdoch and his management — may soon follow.
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