LONDON - Britain's biggest-selling newspaper was fighting to contain the damage after five employees at The Sun tabloid were arrested Saturday in an inquiry into the alleged payment of bribes to police and other officials.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the newspaper, said police had searched their homes and the group's London offices, potentially deepening the scandal over British tabloid wrongdoing.
The Sun's deputy editor Geoff Webster, picture editor John Edwards, chief reporter John Kay, chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker and reporter John Sturgis were those arrested, News International CEO Tom Mockridge said in a message emailed to staff.
Executives moved quickly to reject claims that Murdoch could decide to close down the newspaper. In July, he shuttered the 168-year-old News of The World tabloid amid public outrage when the extent of its phone hacking of celebrities, public figures and crime victims was exposed.
Mockridge said he had been given a "personal assurance today from Rupert Murdoch about his total commitment to continue to own and publish The Sun newspaper." Mockridge acknowledged that the tabloid and its employees were "facing our greatest challenge," but urged them not to prejudge the outcome of the police investigation.
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 Saturday, police said. All eight suspects were later released on bail.
The development follows the arrest of four current and former journalists at The Sun newspaper last month in connection with the same bribery inquiry.
Sun editor Dominic Mohan expressed his alarm at the arrests of newspaper employees, 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.
A former News of the World executive, who also requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigations and 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 developments.
Police said a total of 21 people have now been arrested in their 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.
Investigators said the inquiry — which is running in parallel to investigations into phone hacking and alleged email hacking — was 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.
Any convictions for bribery offenses could have repercussions for News Corp. in the U.S., where the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act could be used to impose hundreds of millions of dollars in fines even in cases where activity has occurred overseas.
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. 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."
Britain's National Union of Journalists claimed some News International staff felt let down by managers. "They are furious at what they see as a monumental betrayal on the part of News International," the union's general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said.
"Once again Rupert Murdoch is trying to pin the blame on individual journalists hoping that a few scalps will salvage his corporate reputation," she said.
The five journalists from The Sun — aged between 45 and 68 — were questioned on suspicion of offenses of corruption and aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office. Police said the three public servants were questioned on suspicion of misconduct in a public office and corruption offenses.
Assistant Chief Constable Jerry Kirkby, of Surrey Police, confirmed the police officer being questioned was a member of his force. 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 defense ministry 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