LONDON — The scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch's media empire isn't just about hacking phones. It's about police and the press – and illegal payments for hot tips.
Insiders say it's a longstanding, if unsavory, British tradition that's now under unprecedented pressure as the public demands to know exactly how the system worked and who was in the pocket of the press. A new police inquiry into the payoffs has been launched, with an independent board to review conclusions, to make sure the true extent of the problem is revealed.
"It's been going on for decades," said Brian Paddick, a former senior officer with Scotland Yard. "It varies from a patrol officer who happens to arrest a celebrity and phones up a paper in hopes of getting 100 pounds ($160) through to a detective investigating serious crimes who are on the books of these papers, getting regular payments."
Newspapers go to extraordinary lengths to protect the identities of their paid Scotland Yard sources. But crushing pressure in the News of the World hacking case seems to have pushed Murdoch's executives to provide investigators with the names of some police who were taking bribes, Paddick said.
"Until you had a situation like this, with News International apparently offering up identities, the police are not going to make much headway finding out who they are," he said, estimating that the number of corrupt detectives handling serious crimes is probably "in the tens and not the hundreds."
Journalists make payments to police in other countries, but the fiercely competitive nature of the British tabloids, and their relentless focus on celebrity sex and scandal, have made the practice particularly widespread here.
Police bribery, from cash-stuffed envelopes to dummy accounts set up for regular payments, may explain how some reporters and photographers manage to be on the scene whenever something dreadful happens to someone important.
Busted for drugs? Driving under the influence? Caught paying for sex? If you're a celebrity, there's a good chance the press will be on the scene, just steps behind the police – and that's no coincidence.
Tip-peddling police have also been known to be used by paparazzi when someone like Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, goes clothes shopping or dines at a posh restaurant.
The British editor's code allows the press some leeway to bend the law in special cases where a strong public interest can be demonstrated. For example, it sometimes allows privacy intrusions like the use of hidden cameras, but making secret payments to police is prohibited.
Public interest was successfully argued, for example, in a 2009 complaint related to the murder of Milly Dowler, the teenager whose phone was hacked by the now defunct News of the World in a case that set off the current furor.
The Daily Mirror tabloid was found to have used "some subterfuge" when reporting about a possible link between a convicted killer and Dowler's case. The killer's family filed a formal complaint against the reporter, saying he had misled them in falsely offering to help them with their court appeal, but the Press Complaints Commission found the tactics were justified.
This ambiguity in the editor's code may partly explain the cavalier attitude shown by Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Murdoch's News International, when she testified about police payoffs before a parliamentary subcommittee in 2003.
At the time, the flame-haired Brooks was editor of The Sun, a popular Murdoch tabloid best known for its topless Page Three girls.
"Do you ever pay the police for information?" Brooks was asked.
"We have paid for information in the past," Brooks replied. Asked if the practice would continue, she said, "It depends" – before colleague Andy Coulson, then editor of the News of the World, interrupted to say the Murdoch tabloids operated within the law.
The startling testimony faded to the background – until now. Brooks faces hostile questioning in Parliament Tuesday, and parallels are sure to be drawn with her 2003 performance.
She may not be as blithe in her response this time.
A statement she released Thursday indicated she will be cautious in her answers because of the ongoing criminal investigation.