By a Newsnet reporter
In a rare public appearance, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on Monday. In his evidence Mr Brown strongly denied that he had threatened to “declare war” on the Murdoch Empire in a heated telephone exchange with Rupert Murdoch.
Mr Brown also dismissed as a “fiction” the claim by Rebekah Brooks that the Sun newspaper had secured the Browns’ permission to publish the news that their son had cystic fibrosis.
When giving evidence to the Inquiry in May, Mr Murdoch had said that Mr Brown had telephoned him to express his anger at the Sun’s withdrawal of support for Labour and had made the threat during the call.
The former Prime Minister admitted he spoke to Mr Murdoch on the phone in early November 2010 to complain about the Sun’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan. However he denied the statement by Mr Murdoch that Mr Brown threatened to ‘declare war’ on the newspaper owner’s media empire.
Replying to questions from the Inquiry’s counsel Robert Jay QC, Mr Brown said:
“There is no evidence of this call happening at the time he said this call happened. The call did not happen the threat was not made.”
Mr Brown told the inquiry that he thought it was “offensive” for the Sun to try and “ruin party confidence” by withdrawing its support for Labour on the eve of the Labour conference, but insisted that he did not contact Rupert Murdoch to complain about it.
News Corporation immediately released a statement saying that Mr Murdoch “stands by his evidence”.
Mr Brown also denied that he had ever authorised press briefings against party colleagues, describing such allegations as “gossip, rumour, innuendo”. He insisted that there was “no evidence” that any of his aides had ever tried to smear ministers in his government, although he admitted that civil servants had informed him of the inappropriate activities of advisor Damien McBride, who was later forced to resign after plotting to smear the families and spouses of Conservative MPs.
Many high profile figures in the previous Labour administration have claimed that Mr Brown’s aides and office staff were engaging in smear campaigns against them. Mr Brown’s long-running internecine war with Tony Blair has entered the annals of political history.
Towards the end of Mr Brown’s tenure in office, Chancellor Alistair Darling believed that Mr Brown was attempting to oust him in order to replace him with Mr Brown’s close ally Ed Balls, currently Labour’s shadow chancellor.
Mr Darling believed that Mr Brown’s office was briefing the press against him in order to force him out of office. Mr Darling later described working with Mr Brown as like “having dental treatment without anaesthetic”.
However Mr Brown told the committee that Mr Darling was a “friend” and insisted he would never have tried to get him removed from office.
Robert Jay QC asked Mr Brown about the publication of the story in the Sun newspaper which revealed that the Browns’ baby son Fraser had cystic fibrosis. In her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in May, former editor of the Sun and chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks claimed that the story was only published after the agreement of the Browns had been secured.
Mr Brown strongly denied this account, telling the inquiry that he and his wife were presented with a “fait accompli” by the newspaper, and the couple had not given “explicit permission” for the story to be published.
In his written statement to the Inquiry, Mr Brown added:
“Despite what has been said to the inquiry under oath [by Ms Brooks], explicit permission was neither sought nor granted (nor would have been granted) for the publication of a story about my second son’s medical condition, and I am sorry to say that even now the Sun newspaper have not been honest with the truth of how private, personal medical knowledge that could have been known only to a small group of medical professionals apart from our immediate family and which my son had a right to expect would remain confidential was obtained and authenticated.”
In May Ms Brooks claimed before the inquiry that the news about Mr Brown’s son’s illness had a legitimate source, and insisted that she would not have published the story had the Browns objected.
Ms Brooks said that the Sun had received the information from another parent with a child at the hospital in Fife where Fraser Brown was born, but refused to disclose the source. She told the inquiry:
“At the time we were absolutely satisfied that the father got the information through legitimate means and we were very sure about that.”
Mr Brown strongly rejected Ms Brooks’ version of events, describing it as a “fiction”. Mr Brown told Mr Jay QC:
“I find it sad that even now, in 2012, members of the News International staff are coming to this inquiry and maintaining this fiction that a story that could only have been achieved or obtained through medical information or through me or my wife … was obtained in another way.”
Mr Jay then asked Mr Brown why he and his wife Sara continued to socialise with Ms Brooks and other figures from News International, even though the Browns believed these people to be responsible for publishing the news about their son’s illness, which Mr Brown said had distressed both him and his wife deeply. The Browns were guests at Ms Brooks’ wedding in June 2009.
Mr Brown laughed nervously and replied that it was his “duty” to maintain close relationships with media figures, adding that his wife was “very forgiving”.
In a statement released on Monday, Fife NHS admitted that it was “highly likely” that a staff member had breached medical confidentiality and leaked information about Fraser Brown’s son’s medical condition to the media.
NHS Fife chief executive John Wilson said: “Any breach of confidentiality in the NHS is unacceptable. We now accept that it is highly likely that, sometime in 2006, a member of staff in NHS Fife spoke, without authorisation, about the medical condition of Mr Brown’s son, Fraser.
“We are quite clear that conversations about patients are just as much a breach of confidentiality as looking into their medical records …
“In the six years which have passed, NHS Fife has tightened up its procedures on patient confidentiality, and staff have had appropriate training.
“I have apologised to Mr and Mrs Brown and we have taken steps to ensure that what happened to Mr and Mrs Brown and their family should not happen again.”