If Rupert Murdoch's sales figures are accurate, readers of his new The Sun on Sunday have no interest in scandal.

This counts as a twist. Devotees of the late and unlamented News of the World liked nothing better than a lurid tale. Now it seems that 3.26 million purchasers couldn't care less about dirty doings in high places.

Perhaps that's because the new Sunday did not expend much space explaining what has gone on within the company that provides their entertainment. There was an editorial, it's true, explaining that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. There was also a boast about all the good The Sun has done. The words "network of corrupted officials" and "culture of illegal payments" were nowhere to be seen.

To be fair, Sue Akers, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had yet to employ those expressions when The Sun on Sunday went to press. Mr Murdoch's executives could probably have guessed what was coming, however.

They had already attempted to discredit the officer's inquiries. They had argued, in particular, that the arrests of 10 of their past and present colleagues amounted to a rank injustice. Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun's former political editor, even composed a column that seemed to blame the boss for – a new sort of moral lapse – co-operating with the police. The real target was Ms Akers.

The word was then put about by The Sun's loyalists that all newspapers sometimes have to pay sources. This happens to be false. Some media organisations never pay: the BBC, as a public body, would be in deep trouble if it began to brandish the taxpayers' chequebook. Others reject the idea, as a matter of principle, that stories should be purchased. This newspaper has always held to that policy.

Money can, very occasionally, change hands. So why was Ms Akers picking on poor old The Sun in her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry? Let me try to illustrate the point. I once authorised "expenses" payments (not on behalf of this newspaper) to an individual who had spent a lot of time and effort trying to establish the truth of a story. The story in question was that he was dying of HIV-Aids thanks to blood transfusions.

Was that equivalent to putting public officials on the company payroll? Was I breaching an ethical rule – yes, in the strict sense – by crossing the line between the pursuit of facts and the possible pursuit of rewards? But was anyone corrupted? That would be the point made by Ms Akers when she mentioned a "network".

She could equally have said The Sun was running a stable of informants. So close was the relationship with the police, the Met even loaned a horse – as you do – to former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks. How did that expenses claim go? "To hire of nosebag ...?" The police assure us that the horse had "reached the end of its working life". Ms Brooks can probably sympathise.

In the real world, Ms Akers has claimed that The Sun's practices were institutionalised, that they went to the top of the company and that systems of concealment were in place. One journalist allegedly dispensed £150,000 over a period of years. One recipient allegedly trousered (as The Sun might say) £80,000. One result was that a number of people in public office had cause to be grateful to the tabloid.

In one sense, that conclusion ought to be obvious. Lord Justice Leveson has heard, time and again, that a great many people, from ministers to celebrities to mere bystanders, were "afraid" of certain newspapers.

Why? Because apolitical devotees of the sports pages and the horoscope could be unleashed? There is no evidence that The Sun has any such power. The research says its readers don't vote – if they vote at all – to order.

Patronage is a different matter. Patronage expressed in cash rewards, with information as a commodity, becomes a weapon. If Ms Akers is right, The Sun established itself as an alternative power structure within public life. She described the information received as being mostly "salacious gossip". That kind of thing can make people afraid. Those corrupted are meanwhile liable to become and remain, shall we say, co-operative.

The Sun's defenders would have it that journalism will be destroyed if a reporter can no longer buy a drink for a police officer. Not for the first time, Mr Murdoch's people are attempting to obscure the issue. There is a difference – a vast difference – between meeting a contact in a public place and bribery. The Leveson Inquiry was instituted precisely because of that difference.

Phone hacking and payments to public officials became scandals, in part, because their effects were already obvious. The Met knew, and did nothing, or nothing serious, about prima facie evidence of crime on a large scale. Why was that? Why was Britain's largest police force so inhibited, so dismissive of so many witnesses, so wilfully slow? These are called rhetorical questions.

John Prescott has proved beyond doubt that the Met went to ridiculous lengths to hide the fact that his phone was hacked as long ago as 2006. He was failed, at every turn, by the police. For what reason? Because the Met feared embarrassment? If Ms Akers is correct, there was a lot to be embarrassed about.

Much of this affair has the air of a black comedy. We like to pretend that corruption does not afflict British public life. We then like to pretend that when bad apples do appear a free and fearless press will root them out. Asking why an orchard full of tainted apples can spring up is not our habit. Instead, 3.26m of us turn to a tabloid for the latest on celebs and scroungers.

Those payments – always "alleged" – are symbolic. They symbolise a larger corruption, the corruption that caused every single major political party in Britain to attempt to curry favour with Mr Murdoch. It wasn't because of his wisdom and charm. When the dust of the Leveson Inquiry has settled, intercourse will resume.

Or did I just see the Scottish edition of The Sun on Sunday "reveal" the date of the independence referendum? The long spoon, the supping spoon, must have been taken out of storage.