The investigation into payments by Rupert Murdoch's Sun journalists to police and other officials is looking into "suspected criminality over a sustained period of time" involving tens of thousands of pounds, it can be disclosed.
Police have arrested nine former and current senior Sun staff in recent weeks in an investigation looking into payments to police and public officials.
The move however has resulted in a backlash from staff who have accused police and Murdoch's News Corp management from conducting a witch hunt into journalists and their sources.
"This is not about sources or expenses, this is an investigation into serious suspected criminality over a sustained period," a source with knowledge of the investigation told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"It involves regular cash payments totalling tens of thousands of pounds a year for several years to public officials, some of whom were effectively on retainers to provide information. In totality it involves a six-figure sum."
The civil war in Rupert Murdoch’s empire deepened on Tuesday after The Times raised concerns that the internal investigation is risking journalists’ sources.
The newspaper reported that names of public officials were being passed to the police on the grounds they do not deserve protection because there is evidence they may have been paid for information.
The Times said it was not clear whether the investigation had identified the sources without considering “whether the publication of stories based on their information was in the public interest”. The story came a day after one of The Sun’s most senior journalists said the internal inquiry was a “witch hunt” designed to protect News Corporation, Mr Murdoch’s parent company in the US.
It also emerged that the investigation by News Corporation’s Management and Standards Committee (MSC) also includes The Times and The Sunday Times after the main focus was on The Sun and the now defunct News of the World.
The National Union of Journalists said it had received calls from reporters on the Times titles who were concerned that their reputations could be damaged. The reporters said they felt they were being offered as a “sacrifice”.
The MSC is examining more than 300 million emails, expenses claims and payment records to identify any unlawful activity, including payments to police officers and other public officials. The Times reported that the investigation by the MSC included looking for keywords such as “bribe” and “bung”.
It said the MSC had reassured staff that the names of confidential sources would be redacted if any details were passed to the police but that would not apply if the source was a public official who may have been paid.
A source close to the MSC insisted payments to public officials were illegal and there was no public interest for bribing people.
It is another sign of the growing tensions between staff at News International, which runs Mr Murdoch’s UK newspapers, and the parent company News Corporation. The MSC answers to News Corporation and has been instructed to co-operate fully with the police investigating the fallout of the hacking scandal and alleged payments to police and other informants.
On Monday, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun’s associate editor, described the recent arrest of Sun journalists as a “witch hunt” and suggested members of the MSC were revelling in the crisis. He said staff felt “under siege” following the arrest this weekend of five more senior members of staff and admitted: “There has never been a bigger crisis than this.”
The MSC source said The Times and The Sunday Times had always been included in the review but admitted The Sun had been the initial focus.