Another day, another twist in the scandal surrounding Britain’s most powerful newspaper publisher, News International, with the arrest of a senior journalist from the daily tabloid The Sun this morning and explosive allegations from Member of Parliament Tom Watson that News of the World systematically targeted all the members of a parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking at the shuttered Sunday tabloid three years ago.
On Thursday the Metropolitan Police announced the arrest of another three people in dawn raids under Operation Elveden, the investigation into alleged corrupt payments to public officials. According to published reports, a couple, one of whom is a member of the armed forces, were arrested in Lancashire. At the same time, a 36-year-old journalist was arrested in Kent. He was identified as Duncan Larcombe, The Sun’s royal editor. Larcombe is the seventh Sun journalist who has been arrested as part of the probe.
As he explained in his testimony last October to the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, set up by the government in response to the phone-hacking scandal, Larcombe was the tabloid’s defense editor until January 2011 and before that a royal correspondent for five years. It is not clear which role Larcombe’s arrest relates to, but members of the armed forces also serve in the royal household.
In his written testimony, Larcombe emphasized that he checked all tips and stories with the royal family’s press officer and refused to publish harassing or intrusive pictures of the family. He also explained that bonuses were paid to Sun staff for the number of exclusives they could publish and admitted that the paper had a “very pressurized environment ... But I think this pressure is what makes us good reporters, not bad reporters.” As for payments to police, Larcombe testified under oath: “I have never paid them, nor been asked to by my employers.”
Scotland Yard’s investigation into alleged illegal payments to public officials has already led to 26 arrests, including of several police officers and an official at the Ministry of Defense. The six other Sun journalists arrested are defense editor Virginia Wheeler, deputy editor Geoff Webster, picture editor John Edwards, chief reporter John Kay, chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker, and news editor John Sturgis, who were arrested earlier this year. No one has yet been charged.
Meanwhile, at the launch of his book on the hacking scandal, Dial M for Murdoch, co-written with The Independent newspaper journalist Martin Hickman, Tom Watson, a key member of the parliamentary subcommittee investigating phone hacking at the News of the World, made some more explosive allegations that could further shake News Corp.
Watson alleges that former News of the World senior reporter Neville Thurlbeck told him that six journalists at the Sunday tabloid were told to target members of the committee looking into the original phone-hacking allegations in 2009 to find out any embarrassing information, such as “who was gay, who had affairs, anything we can use,” according to a passage in the book.
These allegations of potential intimidation and harassment of lawmakers could result in a further parliamentary investigations and legal action. The Leveson Inquiry has already received testimony on the surveillance of lawyers working for phone-hacking victims by News International, and James Murdoch apologized to Watson in person in November for the surveillance placed on him.
However, confirmation from Thurlbeck that this was organized at a senior-management level within News International could yet bring more civil charges. On Thursday Thurlbeck was unavailable for comment. News International confirmed that one of its journalists had been arrested, but refused to comment on the allegations about surveillance of lawmakers by News of the World.