by a Newsnet Reporter
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was last night embroiled in a full scale row after claiming that cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell blocked him from holding a judicial inquiry into phone hacking.
Mr Brown launched a blistering tirade against the Murdoch Empire on Wednesday in the Commons accusing the organisation of having links to criminal figures.
However Mr Brown’s claim that he was prevented from holding an inquiry was immediately challenged by Sir Gus who insisted that the advice given made it clear that the final decision rested with the former PM.
Sir Gus responded by publishing the advice he issued at the time, in which he wrote: “Ministers may instigate an inquiry on grounds of public interest,” but added, “but such a decision is open to judicial review.”
A cabinet office spokesman said: “Decisions on whether or not to hold a public inquiry, and on its scope and nature, are always the decisions of a minister.”
The row erupted after Mr Brown’s extraordinary outburst when he labelled News International “a criminal media nexus”, which “claimed to be on the side of the law-abiding citizen” but in fact stood “side by side with criminals against our citizens”.
The former Labour leader turned on Sir Gus, saying: “I deeply regret my inability to do then what I wanted to do and to overturn the advice of all the authorities and set up a judicial inquiry.”
Mr Brown’s claims were ridiculed by Deputy PM Nick Clegg who accused the former PM of “rewriting history”. Mr Clegg said: “Are we really supposed to believe that for 13 years he was hamstrung by dastardly officials who stopped him getting to grips with this?”
Mr Clegg added: “I sense the whiff of rewriting history, to be honest.”
The Deputy PM also denied claims that Mr Brown had “directly” warned him about the dangers of ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson being employed at Downing Street. It is also claimed that one of the first people to call Andy Coulson when he lost his job as Editor of the News of the World was Gordon Brown.
Mr Brown, who has rarely been seen in the House of Commons since losing the 2010 general election, turned up following claims that the medical files of his son had been acquired illegally and other personal details had been ‘blagged’ by people working for News International.
However questions are now being asked over Mr Brown’s links to the people at the centre of the allegations. It is known that Rebekah Brooks, the News International chief executive, contacted Mr Brown at the time to inform him that the organisation had acquired details of his son Fraser’s illness and that Mr Brown took no action.
On Wednesday, News International titles The Times and the Sun published evidence of Mr Brown socialising with Rebekah Brooks up to summer 2009. The Brown’s attended the wedding of Rebekah Brooks, and social occasions were attended by Brown’s wife Sarah and Ms Brooks.
In her memoirs, Sarah Brown describes a “pyjama party” at Number 10 attended by Ms Brooks, and describes News International owner Rupert Murdoch as “a very solicitous host and very touching in the affection he shows for [his wife] Wendi”.
In 2007, Rupert Murdoch was a guest at Chequers on the weekend Gordon Brown decided not to hold a general election. In 2008, Mr Brown was reported to have spent nearly an hour with Rupert Murdoch’s son James on the eve of his Labour party conference speech.
More evidence of a close relationship between Number 10 and News International comes from Ms Brown’s account of social occasions with the Murdochs and Ms Brooks. In 2008, Ms Brown planned a “girls’ night” party for Wendi Murdoch, Rupert’s wife, at Chequers, attended also by Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter, and Rebekah Brooks, who both had birthdays coming up.
Ms Brown also hosted a charity dinner in New York with Ms Brooks and Wendi Murdoch, at which Elisabeth Murdoch delivered a glowing tribute to the prime minister’s wife.
Mr Brown has now come under fire from some of his own MPs, who fear his angry outburst has opened him up to charges of hypocrisy on the grounds that he had courted the Murdoch press when chancellor and prime minister.
One Labour MP and former advisor to Tony Blair said that Mr Blair and Mr Brown would often vie to host executives from the Murdoch Empire, including Irwin Stelzer, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man at the time. “When Irwin Stelzer visited Number 10, Number 11 always had to make sure he visited them too. It became a competition,” the MP said.
Meanwhile in an interview with the Wall Street Journal Rupert Murdoch said News Corp. had handled the crisis “extremely well in every way possible,” making just “minor mistakes.”.
Mr. Murdoch challenged Gordon Brown’s claim that there had never been a warm relationship between them and said: “He got it entirely wrong,” Mr. Murdoch said, adding that “the Browns were always friends of ours” until the company’s Sun tabloid withdrew its support for the Labour Party before the last election. The media boss insisted he would challenge some of the “total lies” that had been told to parliament.
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