Story theft allegations are a new problem for News Corp

American investigators are examining whether the News of the World's parent company, News Corp, broke US anti-corruption laws by bribing British officials. Payments made to rival journalists could make it more difficult for the media conglomerate to defend itself.

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LONDON // No one suspected the secretary. Efficient, well-dressed and well-liked, Sue Harris was at the heart of the Sunday People, the smallest of Britain's weekly tabloids. She booked flights, reserved accommodation, and tallied expenses for the tabloid paper's dozen or so full-time reporters.

She was a petite, 40-something south Londoner who had spent most if not all of her working life at the tabloid, and journalists there trusted her totally.

Maybe they shouldn't have.

In 1995, Ms Harris was dismissed over an allegation that she had been feeding her paper's juiciest scoops to Piers Morgan's News of the World, betraying her co-workers for a weekly payoff of £250 - worth today about Dh2,400. Although People journalists had long believed there was a traitor in their midst, they were shocked when Ms Harris was exposed.

"Everybody knew there was a mole," said a former senior journalist with the People. "We never thought the person we were looking for was her."

The journalist, who was there when Ms Harris was fired, was among three former colleagues who recounted her story to the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they still work in the media industry.

Ms Harris's alleged spying on behalf of the News of the World was not unique, an AP investigation has found. Interviews with three more former journalists and published accounts suggest that Rupert Murdoch's flagship Sunday tabloid engaged in a pattern of payoffs aimed at rival newspaper employees.

The News of the World was closed in July as evidence of illegal conduct there became inescapable. Although accusations that the paper hacked into phones and corrupted police officers to win scoops have been widely aired, the paper's efforts to subvert rival newspaper employees have seen less attention.

American investigators are already examining whether the News of the World's parent company, New York-based News Corp, broke US anti-corruption laws by bribing British officials. Legal experts now say that payments made to rival journalists could make it more difficult for the media conglomerate to defend itself against any potential prosecution.

The corporate espionage campaign also calls into question the ethics of Morgan, who edited the News of the World in 1994 and 1995 and who once boasted that having rivals on his payroll meant that he and his colleagues "always know exactly what our competitors are doing."

Story theft has long been a big worry for Britain's Sunday tabloids, who only get one shot a week at making an impression on their readership. Particular concern surrounds the "splash", the front page story which acts as an advertisement for a paper's journalism.

At the People, as with other tabloids, journalists took extreme measures to keep a potential splash under wraps. Sources would be paid compensation in return for exclusive access or sequestered at out-of-the way hotels for days at a time to keep them away from rival reporters.

Keeping the splash secret was particularly important for the cash-strapped People. If the News of the World got wind of a story, the Murdoch tabloid's massive budget meant it could easily outbid the People for interview rights.

But no secret was safe from Ms Harris, who spent years sitting a few feet from the People's senior editors. Former journalists say that, thanks to the weekly payments made by the News of the World, the People's powerful rival knew everything too.

The effect on reporters was devastating. A People journalist sent by aircraft to Edinburgh was disconsolate when he found a News of the World team on the same flight. A writer huddled with his source at an obscure hotel outside London was shocked to discover his paper's biggest rival at the downstairs bar. A team of People reporters who had spent days staking out the home of a young woman seethed when they saw their competitors walk up to the front door.

Buying the loyalty of rival journalists would not have broken British bribery laws, which were only recently updated to cover payments made to competitors. Nor would they have run up against the US. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act - which only applies to foreign officials.

But legal experts say that if a prosecution were brought under the act for bribing police, then the payments could be entered into evidence.

News Corp declined to comment on any of the allegations made in this article. Piers Morgan, whose career has since taken him to a top spot as CNN's celebrity interviewer, also declined to comment.