LONDON (AP) — Five staff at Britain's largest selling tabloid The Sun were arrested Saturday along with three other people over alleged bribes paid to police and defense officials, detectives and the newspaper's parent company said.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. said in a statement that police had also searched the homes of the five staff and the group's London offices, potentially deepening the scandal over British tabloid wrongdoing.
A 39-year-old female employee at Britain's ministry of defense, a 36-year-old male member of the armed forces and a 39-year-old serving police officer with Surrey Police, were also arrested in an early morning swoop, police said.
The arrests of the staff at The Sun, purchased by Murdoch in 1969 and long regarded as the jewel in his British media empire, follow the arrests last month of four current and former journalists at the newspaper in connection with the same bribery inquiry.
Murdoch closed down the 168-year-old News of The World tabloid in July amid public anger when the extent of its phone hacking of celebrities, public figures and crime victims was exposed.
Dominic Mohan, editor of The Sun, expressed his surprise at the arrests, but insisted that his staff were committed to the newspaper.
"I'm as shocked as anyone by today's arrests but am determined to lead The Sun through these difficult times," Mohan said in a statement. "I have a brilliant staff and we have a duty to serve our readers and will continue to do that. Our focus is on putting out Monday's newspaper."
A total of 21 people have now been arrested in the bribery probe — including three police officers — though none has yet been charged. They include Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of Murdoch's News International; ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson — who is also Prime Minister David Cameron's former communications chief; and journalists from both the News of the World and The Sun.
A former News of the World executive, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive details of the ongoing investigations, said The Sun's current deputy editor Geoff Webster, picture editor John Edwards and chief reporter John Kay were among those arrested Saturday. Britain's Sky News and other British media reported that chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker and reporter John Sturgis was also being questioned. News Corp. would not publicly confirm the identities of those detained.
Police confirmed that the latest arrests came after information was provided to detectives by the management standards committee of Murdoch's News Corp., set up to investigate alleged malpractice.
Initially the police investigation — which is running parallel to inquiries into phone hacking and alleged email hacking — was focused on whether reporters had illegally paid police officers for information. Detectives said Saturday they had extended the scope of the probe, known as Operation Elveden, to include other public officials.
"The remit of Operation Elveden has widened to include the investigation of evidence uncovered in relation to suspected corruption involving public officials who are not police officers," police said in a statement.
News Corp. confirmed it had supplied the police with information, but insisted it would "continue to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to protect legitimate journalistic privilege and sources, private or personal information and legal privilege."
"News Corporation maintains its total support to the ongoing work of the management standards committee and is committed to making certain that legitimate journalism is vigorously pursued in both the public interest and in full compliance with the law," it said.
All eight people arrested Saturday are being questioned by police in London and at stations in the southern England counties of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Wiltshire.
The five journalists from The Sun — aged between 45 and 68 — are being quizzed on suspicion of offenses of corruption and aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office. Police said the three public servants were being questioned on suspicion of misconduct in a public office and corruption offenses.
Deborah Glass, deputy chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, said Britain's policing watchdog was cooperating over the inquiry. "Today's arrests are further evidence of the strenuous efforts being undertaken to identify police officers who may have taken corrupt payments," she said.
Assistant Chief Constable Jerry Kirkby, of Surrey Police, confirmed that one of his force's officers was being questioned. "The force takes matters of this nature extremely seriously and we will not hesitate to respond robustly to allegations where there is evidence to support them," he said.
Surrey Police was responsible for the investigation into missing 13-year-old girl Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered. A wave of public revulsion over the disclosure that reporters had intercepted her voicemails in 2002 led Murdoch to close down the News of The World.
Britain's ministry of defense declined to comment on the arrest of the defense official.
David Stringer can be reached at http://bit.ly/b2tTK0