LONDON (AP) — Britain's biggest-selling tabloid newspaper was fighting to contain the damage after five of its employees were arrested Saturday in an inquiry into the alleged payment of bribes to police and other officials, detectives and the newspaper's parent company said.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. said the five employees from The Sun tabloid had been detained and that police had searched their homes and the group's London offices, potentially deepening the scandal over British tabloid wrongdoing.
A 39-year-old female employee at Britain's defense ministry, a 36-year-old male member of the armed forces and a 39-year-old serving police officer with Surrey Police, were also arrested, police said.
The development follows the arrest of four current and former journalists at the newspaper last month in connection with the same bribery inquiry.
Sun editor Dominic Mohan expressed his alarm at Saturday's arrests, but insisted the six-day-a-week newspaper would continue its work.
"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."
Two people familiar with the matter, both of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue, said Murdoch was scheduled to head to London in the near future to spend time with the company's journalists. One person explained that the trip had been planned for some time and wasn't in reaction to the latest arrests.
News Corp. declined to comment on Murdoch's travel plans, or on whether he planned to address staff at The Sun.
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.
A former News of the World executive, who also requested anonymity to discuss 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. Sky News and other British media reported that chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker and reporter John Sturgis were also being questioned. News Corp. would not publicly confirm the identities of those detained.
The executive — who said he was in touch with the Sun's senior staff — claimed that management there were "fighting to halt morale collapse" at the tabloid, describing Mohan as "somewhat shellshocked" by the arrests.
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.
Police said the inquiry — which is running in parallel to investigations into phone hacking and alleged email hacking — had also now widened its remit. It was initially focused on whether reporters had illegally paid police officers for information, but will now examine whether other public officials were also targeted.
In a statement, police confirmed 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.
News Corp. also confirmed that 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.
Police said later Saturday that they had completed searches at the offices of News International, a division of News Corp., in east London.
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.
Raphael Satter and Paisley Dodds in London and Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
David Stringer can be reached at http://bit.ly/b2tTK0