x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Former British PM Gordon Brown accused Murdoch newspaper of criminal links

Brown tells BBC that Sunday Times had used 'disgusting' methods to gain financial information about a property deal he was involved in 20 years ago.

LONDON // Former prime minister Gordon Brown stepped into the phone hacking scandal yesterday, accusing another of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers of consorting with the "criminal underworld" to get a story on him.

As senior police officers were grilled by a parliamentary committee over the hacking at The News of the World, Mr Brown told the BBC that The Sunday Times had used "disgusting" methods to gain financial information about a property deal he was involved in 20 years ago.

The Sunday Times ran the story in 2001, when Mr Brown was chancellor of the exchequer, alleging that he had bought a London apartment at a knockdown price with the help of Geoffrey Robinson, another Labour minister who had to resign over helping to finance another cabinet minister's property deal. Mr Brown denied all the allegations.

Mr Brown also revealed that he and his wife were "in tears" after The Sun published a story in 2006 revealing their baby son had cystic fibrosis. New International said yesterday that the story had been obtained through legitimate means.

The company, which manages Mr Murdoch's newspaper interests in Britain, said it would investigate Mr Brown's complaints against The Sunday Times, though journalists were worried last night that the former prime minister was trying to use the hacking scandal to mount a witch hunt against News International titles generally.

The Sunday Times has been accused of "blagging" - adopting someone else's identity to get hold of private records - to access Mr Brown's bank accounts and legal papers.

Yesterday's Guardian newspaper claimed that The Sunday Times had used a convicted conman working to get access to Mr Brown's files. Mr Brown told the BBC that The Sunday Times's story had been "completely wrong" and was aimed at trying to bring him down as chancellor.

"I'm genuinely shocked to find this happened because of the links with known criminals who were undertaking this activity, hired by investigators who were working with The Sunday Times," he said.

"If I, with all the protection and all the defences and all the security that a chancellor of the exchequer or a prime minister has, is so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, unlawful tactics, what about the ordinary citizen?"

He said that his lawyers had written to complain to The Sunday Times after the story was published, but that he had not raised the matter with the police.

Mr Brown received support from prime minister David Cameron who said that his predecessor in Downing Street had appeared to suffer an "appalling invasion of privacy" and pledged that the government would get "to the bottom of what is clearly an appalling mess".

The prime minister also said that "my heart went out to Gordon and Sarah Brown" over the fact that their son's condition had been splashed across the front page of The Sun in 2006.

"To have your childrens' privacy invaded in that way, and I know this myself, particularly when your child isn't well, is completely unacceptable and heart breaking for the family concerned," said Mr Cameron.

Meanwhile, some of Britain's most senior police officers were accused of allowing a "web of spying and corruption to continue untouched" when they appeared yesterday before MPs investigating the phone-hacking scandal.

The Scotland Yard officers defended their actions before the House of Commons home affairs committee, saying they had failed to uncover the extent of the hacking at The News of the World in a 2006 investigation because they had been hampered by a lack of co-operation among executives at News International.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the Metropolitan Police's current head of counterterrorism who reviewed the original inquiry in 2009 and adjudged there was no fresh evidence to merit further police action, also said that he was "99 per cent certain" his own phone had been hacked in 2005-6.

Ian (now Lord) Blair, the head of the Metropolitan Police until his retirement two years ago, said that his own mobile phone number had been among almost 4,000 found this year on a list owned by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed along with The News of the World's royal editor in 2007 for hacking into the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff.

Mr Yates, who denied being one of the officers who had been paid tens of thousands of pounds in bribes by the newspaper, also admitted that he made a "poor" decision not to reopen the inquiry in 2009 and said that he regretted not doing enough to protect victims.

Mr Yates denied claims by the New York Times that he did not investigate the hacking allegations further because he feared the best-selling tabloid, which Mr Murdoch ordered to be shut down after last Sunday's edition, would publish details about his personal life.

"I categorically state that was not the case. I think it's despicable. I think it's cowardly," he told the MPs.

At the end of the questioning, Keith Vaz, the committee chairman, told Mr Yates that he found his evidence "unconvincing", adding: "There are more questions to be asked about what happened when you conducted this review.

Peter Clarke, a former deputy assistant commissioner who was also part of the original investigation, told the committee that he had not authorised officers to trawl through 11,000 pages of material that had been seized after Mulcaire's arrest because he could not justify the resources.

Mr Clarke said that there were pressing concerns of the terrorist threat to Britain at the time and his investigations at The News of the World "involved gross breaches of privacy but no apparent threat of physical harm to the public".

In other developments yesterday, a Labour Party motion calling for Mr Murdoch to withdraw his bid to buy all of UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB will be backed by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the two parties in the ruling coalition government.

dsapsted@thenational.ae