By RAPHAEL SATTER, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Is Rupert Murdoch's best-selling newspaper in open revolt?
The associate editor of The Sun newspaper fired off an 800-word broadside Monday at the U.K. police phone hacking investigation that has led to the arrest of some of the paper's most senior journalists. Trevor Kavanagh called the probe a phone-hacking "witch hunt" that was threatening "the very foundations of a free press."
Kavanagh's criticism was directed at police and politicians, but media watchers say its wording left no doubt he was also aiming his ire at the senior Murdoch lieutenants who have been sent in to handle the scandal, and possibly even the media mogul himself.
"Instead of being called in to questioning, 30 journalists have been needlessly dragged from their beds in dawn raids, arrested and held in police cells while their homes are ransacked," Kavanagh said in a prominent op-ed column.
Bold faced letters exclaimed that: "This witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on press freedom." That was an apparent reference to Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, where Britain ranks 28th behind former Eastern bloc countries such as Poland and Slovakia.
Kavanagh, one of Britain's most influential political journalists, said the scale of the police investigation into phone hacking was out of proportion to the alleged wrongdoing and was taking resources away from British counterterrorism work ahead of the Olympics, a claim denied by Scotland Yard.
Police released an unusual statement detailing the number of staff assigned to the investigation — 169 — and insisting that "at no stage has any major investigation been compromised as a result of these deployments."
The investigation into illegality at Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid and its sister paper, The Sun, has already led to a slew of arrests — including police officers, executives and well-known British tabloid journalists. No one has yet been charged, but the inquiry has uncovered widespread wrongdoing, including voicemail interception, computer hacking and illicit payments to public officials for information.
After an attempt to bury the scandal failed, Murdoch's News Corp. appointed a management and standards committee to get to the bottom of the criminality at his British newspaper subsidiary, News International. The committee, which reports to News Corp. executive vice president Joel Klein, has been pouring through millions of old emails and other documents in an attempt to turn the page on the scandal.
A comment widely attributed to a committee source recently spoke of the need to "drain the swamp" — a statement that has infuriated some journalists.
"The Sun is not a 'swamp' that needs draining," Kavanagh thundered in his first line. "Nor are those other great News International titles, The Times and The Sunday Times."
Observers said Kavanagh's "swamp" comments were a clear dig at the management standards team.
"Obviously that phrase — allegedly coming from a senior member of the MSC team — has deeply upset many people at the Sun," said Paul Connew, a media commentator who has held senior positions at several tabloids. "It's hardly helped the atmosphere."
Journalism professor Roy Greenslade went even further, calling the editorial "a thinly veiled attack on The Sun's owner, Rupert Murdoch."
Connew disagreed, saying that Murdoch may share Kavanagh's frustrations about having his paper at the center of a massive police inquiry.
"This may well reflect Rupert's position," he said of the column.
It may also reflect the position of other newspapers. Few journalists defended the News of The World before it was shut, but the reaction to the arrests at The Sun has been more mixed. The right-leaning Daily Telegraph said in an editorial Monday that "the hacking inquiry is too heavy handed," while the Daily Mail wondered whether police could really spare all that manpower "to investigate the alleged misdemeanors of some News International journalists."
Of course, even rival newspapers may have a self-interest in taking the heat off The Sun. Two veteran tabloid reporters told The Associated Press last year that paying police for tips — which is a crime in Britain — was common across the industry.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they still worked in the media industry.