By Bob Duncan
Confidential telephone records released by the cabinet office appear to back up former PM Gordon Brown’s claim that the abusive “declaration of war” call with Rupert Murdoch never took place.
In April, Mr Murdoch told the Leveson enquiry into press standards that Mr Brown, then UK Prime Minister, had called him in September 2009, just after the Sun had switched its editorial support from Labour to the Tories.
The media tycoon claimed that Mr Brown had threatened to “make war” on News Corp and that the PM was not “in a balanced state of mind” when he made the call.
Mr Murdoch stated that he could not remember the exact date of the call but News Corp later said it had been made towards the end of September 2009, when Mr Brown would have been at the Labour Party conference in Brighton.
Gordon Brown was asked about the call while giving evidence to Leveson on Monday. The former PM said, “This conversation never took place”, and added, “I’m shocked and surprised that it should be suggested, even when there’s no evidence of such a conversation, that it should have happened.”
The former Labour leader went on to claim that any call from him to “someone like Rupert Murdoch” would have been made through the Downing Street switchboard, even if it had been made on a mobile phone, because he always wanted to have “someone on the call to verify what happened”.
Asked by inquiry barrister Robert Jay QC if he ever rang people directly from, for example, a hotel phone, Brown appeared to accept that it did indeed happen but insisted: “Not someone like Mr Murdoch. I would always go through Downing Street because you would always want someone on the phone call.
“You would want to have a record of what was being said, and you would want to know exactly the time you did the call and everything else.”
Mr Brown continued, “There’s no question that any phone call could have been made without it going through this procedure” adding that he “wouldn’t know Rupert Murdoch’s phone number.”
News Corp responded to Mr Brown’s evidence by insisting that Mr Murdoch stood by his version of the events.
The Cabinet Office has now released a statement which Mr Brown claims confirms the evidence he gave to Leveson. Governments do not normally release information relating to a previous administration, but sources indicated that the statement was released with Mr Brown’s approval.
The statement says, “Following Gordon Brown’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on Monday we have received a number of questions about our records, which we provided to Mr Brown to support his preparations for the inquiry.
“We can confirm that there is a record of only one call between Mr Brown and Rupert Murdoch in the year to March 2010. That call took place on the 10th of November 2009.
“This was followed up by an email from Gordon Brown to Rupert Murdoch on the same day referring to the earlier conversation on Afghanistan.
“Four witness statements have been submitted to the inquiry on the content of the call by staff who worked in No 10 Downing Street and who were the four and sole personnel on the phone call.”
Mr Murdoch responded to the statement by sending a Twitter message, saying: “I stand by every word is aid [I said] at Leveson.”
Mr Brown’s office has issued a statement saying that the Cabinet Office note “confirms Mr Brown’s evidence to the inquiry and this document will now be submitted by Mr Brown to Lord Justice Leveson”.
“The fact is there is no record of a phone call Mr Murdoch claims to have had with Mr Brown around the end of September 2009,” added a spokesman for the former prime minister.
“There is no record of a call because no call took place. Indeed even now Mr Murdoch has been unable to name any date or a time of such a call.”
Sources at News Corp say technical staff are now going through phone records forensically in an effort to provide supporting evidence to Murdoch’s testimony that the conversation did take place.
They also point to Lord Mandelson’s evidence to Leveson about a telephone conversation that took place some time after the Sun’s switch to the Tories.
Mandelson had said, “But I know what he said to me about Rupert Murdoch’s reaction, which was to say basically: ‘I don’t like how it’s been done and I think it’s a bad day to do it and I wouldn’t have done it this way myself, but that’s life and we have to get on with it.'”
Now that Mr Brown has accused Mr Murdoch of lying under oath to the Leveson enquiry, a more substantial statement from News Corp is expected to be issued shortly.