London police on Monday defended a string of arrests at Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid The Sun, which has accused the force of carrying out a “witch hunt” against its journalists.
The arrest of five staff at the weekend for allegedly bribing officials has plunged Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper into crisis, with reports that a related phone hacking scandal is set to spread to the United States.
The London Metropolitan Police said the “seriousness of the allegations” meant the resources it is ploughing into its inquiries into bribery, phone hacking and computer hacking by journalists were not “disproportionate to the enormous task in hand.”
Sun associate editor Trevor Kavanagh penned a stinging attack in the daily on Monday, accusing British authorities of trying to destroy it and its sister publications The Times and The Sunday Times.
“The Sun is not a ‘swamp’ that needs draining. Nor are those other great News International titles, The Times and The Sunday Times,” Kavanagh wrote.
“Yet in what would at any other time cause uproar in parliament and among civil liberty and human rights campaigners, its journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang.”
News International is the British newspaper subsidiary of News Corporation, the US-based media empire of which Murdoch is founder and chairman.
Kavanagh wrote that the probe was the reason that Britain now lags in 28th place, behind former communist states Poland, Estonia and Slovakia, in a world press freedom survey by Reporters Without Borders.
He later told the BBC there were “elements in some political parties” who wanted The Sun to shut like the News of the World, its Sunday sister paper which Murdoch closed in July amid a scandal over phone hacking.
“There are people who will stop at nothing to destroy News International,” he said.
A judicial inquiry set up by Prime Minister David Cameron last year completed its first set of hearings on the ethics of the press last week.
Later sessions will deal with collusion between journalists and police, and between journalists and politicians.
Twenty-one people have now been arrested in an inquiry into alleged corrupt payments made by journalists to police officers and other public officials in exchange for information.
They include an army officer, a defence ministry official and policemen, who were arrested on Saturday at the same time as the five senior Sun journalists.
Additionally, four current and former staff of the Sun were arrested in January and another in November.
Another 17 people have been arrested in a separate inquiry into the hacking of mobile phone voicemails, including former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson.
The scandal claimed the jobs of the head of Scotland Yard and a deputy after allegations that the force failed to investigate hacking properly.
Kavanagh admitted that some Sun employees were angry at News Corp. because its Management and Standards Committee, set up after the hacking scandal, had given police the information that led to the latest arrests.
“There’s certainly a mood of unhappiness that the company — certain parts of the company, not News International I hasten to add, not the newspaper side of the operation — are actually boasting that they’re sending information to the police,” he told theBBC.
His comments come as the lawyer for several victims in the phone hacking scandal was reportedly due to bring the first case against News Corp. on the other side of the Atlantic.
Mark Lewis was due to meet lawyers in the United States about launching legal action there, the Independent newspaper reported, citing sources close to Lewis’s legal team.
Several British newspapers have also reported that News Corp. faces investigation by US authorities under legislation prohibiting corrupt payments to foreign officials.
But two of News International’s competitors backed Kavanagh’s criticism of the scale of the police operation.
The Daily Telegraph said the police inquiry was “too heavy-handed,” while the Daily Mail said it involved too many police officers at a time when there was a “mini-crime wave” in London.
The Sun sells just over 2.5 million copies a day.