Senior Sun journalists who were arrested over claims that they paid police for information were cleared to return to work today by the paper’s owner Rupert Murdoch.
In a series of shock announcements, he also revealed that a Sunday edition of The Sun newspaper will be launched ‘very soon’.
After flying in for emergency talks last night, the media mogul sent staff an emotional email telling them that he would stay in London to give them his ‘unwavering support’.
The 80-year-old, who bought the Sun 43 years ago, said the arrests of nine senior journalists at Britain’s biggest-selling paper in the past few weeks were a source of ‘great pain’ to him, adding: ‘The paper is part of me and is one of our proudest achievements.’
No date has yet been announced for the first edition of The Sun on Sunday…but Mr Murdoch said it would be ‘the best answer to our critics’.
The tabloid has been shaken by the arrests in the past few weeks of most of the paper’s top brass on suspicion of corruption over payments to police and other officials, in exchange for information.
Five of them, including the Deputy Editor, were held after dawn raids on their homes at the weekend.
All nine had been immediately suspended on full pay in the wake of the arrests. But today, Mr Murdoch said he was doing ‘everything to assist’ them, including paying their legal fees.
He said they were free to work until any formal charges are made against them.
He added: ‘Everyone is innocent unless proven otherwise.’
Despite the invitation, it was not clear if all nine journalists would return to work after The Times reported that some were considering their options.
A Sun source told The Times: ‘The invitation is being treated with some dubiety. They feel bruised.’
The mood inside the paper’s offices ‘lifted visibly’ after Mr Murdoch’s email arrived, it was claimed.
However, he was unrepentant in the face of a rebellion growing within the ranks after it was revealed that an internal investigation unit he set up last year – the Management and Standards Committee – had passed the details of journalists’ confidential sources to police.
‘IT’S A PART OF ME’: MURDOCH PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR THE SUN
I’ve worked alongside you for 43 years to build The Sun into one of the world’s finest papers. It is a part of me and is one of our proudest achievements. The Sun occupies a unique and important position within News Corporation.
I have immense respect for our heritage, your exceptional journalism and, above all, you, the talented women and men who work tirelessly every day to ensure our readers have access to such a trusted news source.
I believe this newsroom is full of great journalists and I remain grateful for your superb work and for the stories you uncover to inform and protect the public. None more so than over the last three weeks.
My continuing respect makes this situation a source of great pain for me, as I know it is for each of you.
We will obey the law. Illegal activities simply cannot and will not be tolerated – at any of our publications. Our Board of Directors, our management team and I take these issues very seriously.
Our independently chaired Management & Standards Committee, which operates outside of News International, has been instructed to cooperate with the police. We will turn over every piece of evidence we find — not just because we are obligated to but because it is the right thing to do.
We are doing everything we can to assist those who were arrested — all suspensions are hereby lifted until or whether charged and they are welcome to return to work. News Corporation will cover their legal expenses. Everyone is innocent unless proven otherwise.
I made a commitment last summer that I would do everything I could to get to the bottom of our problems and make this Company an example to Fleet Street of ethical journalism. We will continue to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to protect legitimate journalistic privilege and sources, which I know are essential for all of you to do your jobs. But we cannot protect people who have paid public officials.
I am confident we can live by these commitments and still produce great journalism. We will build on The Sun’s proud heritage by launching The Sun on Sunday very soon. Our duty is to expand one of the world’s most widely read newspapers and reach even more people than ever before.
Having a winning paper is the best answer to our critics. I am even more determined to see The Sun continue to fight for its readers and its beliefs. I am staying with you all, in London, for the next several weeks to give you my unwavering support.
I am confident we will get through this together and emerge stronger.
Thank you, Rupert Murdoch
It is understood that several journalists are preparing to mount a legal challenge against the paper and that they are keen to hire Geoffrey Robertson QC, who in a column in The Times this week suggested that recent actions by the MSC breached their human rights.
On Tuesday it emerged the MSC, which was set up by Mr Murdoch in July in response to the phone hacking scandal and which operates independently of his newspaper stable, handed over the identities of sources to detectives.
It did so on the grounds that the sources do not deserve protection because there is evidence that The Sun or the News of the World may have paid them for information.
Today, Mr Murdoch backed that stance.
He said: ‘I made a commitment last summer that I would do everything I could to get to the bottom of our problems and make this company an example to Fleet Street of ethical journalism.
‘We will continue to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to protect legitimate journalistic privilege and sources, which I know are essential for all of you to do your jobs. But we cannot protect people who have paid public officials.’
The decision to establish a Sunday tabloid sparked anger today, with a Labour MP denouncing it as ‘massively premature’.
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who has repeatedly attacked News International over the phone hacking scandal, also described the decision to lift the suspensions on all arrested staff as the ‘most cynical piece of hypocrisy’.
He said News International had campaigned for public officials who have been charged with criminal offences to be suspended from office but was now apparently not applying the same requirement to its own staff.
Mr Bryant said: ‘I think it is massively premature because one would have thought the Murdoch empire would want to wait until Leveson had completed his inquiry and the the police and prosecuting authorities had completed their investigations.
‘He (Mr Murdoch) is meant still to be “draining the swamp” and yet the swamp is meant to produce another newspaper.
Mr Murdoch toured the newspaper’s newsroom today. But despite the charm offensive many were still furious about the treatment of their colleagues at the hands of former editor of the Daily Telegraph Will Lewis, who now heads up the MSC.
In a sign of how low relations have sunk, one senior staff member dubbed him the ‘chief witch hunter’ and said there would be demands that he be sacked.
The MSC believes it has uncovered evidence of ‘serious suspected criminality over a sustained period’ by some public officials supplying The Sun with information, dismissing the suggestion from some reporters that they were being investigated over ‘trivial’ matters, such as £50 lunches with sources.
The MSC has been feeding Operation Elveden, the police investigation into corrupt payments, with information over the past few months.
In all, 21 people have been held. The five members of Sun staff arrested last weekend were deputy editor of the paper Geoff Webster, chief reporter John Kay, picture editor John Edwards, deputy news editor John Sturgis and chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker.
Also held in the dawn raids were a 39-year-old Ministry of Defence employee and a 36-year-old member of the Armed Forces.
In January, senior members of The Sun’s newsroom were held by police and later released on bail.
They were head of news Chris Pharo, executive editor Fergus Shanahan, crime editor Mike Sullivan as well as former managing editor Graham Dudman and a 29-year-old police officer.
In July last year, former chief executive of News International and ex-Sun editor Rebekah Brooks was questioned by detectives as part of Operation Elveden and those involved with Operation Weeting, the investigation into alleged phone hacking by journalists.
In November, long-serving journalist Jamie Pyatt was also arrested in relation to allegations of corrupt payments to police officers.
The arrests followed the shock closure by News International of the News of the World in July last year after lurid phone hacking allegations emerged.
At the time, the 168-year-old title was Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper and the demise of the profitable enterprise has left executives at News International searching for a replacement ever since, with the Sun on Sunday hotly tipped to be unveiled.
A source told the Guardian that the evidence uncovered after looking through 300million internal News International emails and other documentation involved ‘regular cash payments totalling tens of thousands of pounds a year for several years to public officials, some of whom were effectively on retainer to provide information’ to The Sun. ‘In totality it involves a six-figure sum,’ the source said.
Fresh details about the activities of the MSC come amid mounting concern among journalists across Mr Murdoch’s three News International titles that their sources are not being protected.
According to the FT, the NUJ has taken legal advice about whether the MSC could hand over information and expose sources.
The union said it has been approached by Sun journalists and civil servants afraid of being outed as whistleblowers.
A spokesman said: ‘We are very seriously looking at the legal redress regarding the Management and Standard Committee’s activity.
‘We support Geoffrey Robertson’s view that the committee has conveniently forgotten the relevant section of the Human Rights Act and will pursue the case on those grounds.’
by Robbo Green