For more than a year, Gordon Brown has been virtually invisible in the House of Commons.
But on Wednesday, in a rare appearance, he broke his silence with a righteous fury, launching a sustained attack upon Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and their actions.
In the House of Commons, the former prime minister spoke out against the News Corp founder and his besieged clan, accusing them of systematic criminality, collusion with “the underworld” and the abuse of the vulnerable. In only his second Commons speech since leaving Downing Street, Mr Brown also sought to portray David Cameron and the Conservatives as willing helpers of Mr Murdoch, and perhaps even complicit in his retainers’ wrongdoing.
On the day that Mr Murdoch had to abandon his bid for full control of BSkyB, Mr Brown set out to compound the agonies of the media magnate and end his influence in public life forever.
Speaking for more than half an hour to a packed Commons, Mr Brown’s condemnation of the media verged on the apoplectic, displaying a passion and anger he rarely exposed while in office.
“In their behaviour towards those without a voice of their own, News International descended from the gutter to the sewer,” he declared. “The tragedy is that they let the rats out of the sewer.”
Mr Brown is the son of the manse, his father a Church of Scotland minister, the man who gave him the much-mocked moral compass that guided his ill-fated premiership.
Yesterday, he made no mention of his faith or his background, but there was no need.
The sense of righteous fury Mr Brown projected, and his denunciation of New International’s sins, made clear where on the moral and spiritual scale he located himself and his newly-declared enemies.
Journalists and others working for Mr Murdoch hacked phones, “blagged” financial records, infiltrated email accounts, invaded privacy, violated trust and exploited grief, he said.
“Many, many wholly innocent men, women and children who at their darkest hour, at the most vulnerable moment of their lives, with no one and nowhere to turn, found their properly private lives, their private losses, their private sorrows, treated as the public property of News International,” he said. “Their private and innermost feelings and their private tears were bought and sold by News International for commercial gain.”
He and his family were among the victims, he said, referring to claims – strongly disputed – that The Sun illegally accessed the medical records of his infant son. Because of that experience, he said, he had amassed “a great deal of evidence” about News International and its misdemeanours.
Because of the company, the last decade of British politics was scarred by a “lethal combination of illegality, of collusion and of cover-up,” he said, laying much of the blame at his successor’s feet. Earlier in the Commons, Mr Cameron completed his own break with News International.
The Prime Minister first abandoned his former communications chief, Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor. If Mr Coulson is found to have been involved in wrongdoing, he must “face the full force of the law,” he said.
He also said that Rebekah Brooks, the News International chief executive should quit, a departure now widely expected next week following her questioning by a Commons committee. She might take over one of Mr Murdoch’s interests in Australia.
For Mr Brown, Mr Cameron’s words were too little and too late.
In office, Labour opposed Mr Murdoch and “stood up for what we believed was the public interest”, Mr Brown said. But as leader of the Opposition, Mr Cameron had “invariably reclassified the public interest as the News International interest.”
Yet Mr Cameron was not alone in trying to prevent Mr Murdoch from being held to account, he argued.
As prime minister, he wanted a “full, judge-led inquiry” into phone hacking and the rest, as long ago as 2009, he said. Yet he was prevented from ordering such an inquiry, he claimed.
To prove it, he broke convention and read out advice from civil servants.
Mr Brown implied that he had been powerless to bring Mr Murdoch’s company to account.
“It was opposed by the police. It was opposed by the Home Office. It was opposed by the Civil Service. It was not supported by the select committee,” he said.
That account drew accusations that Mr Brown was trying to rewrite history. Sammy Wilson, a Democratic Unionist, suggested that Mr Brown had simply “bottled it”. Mr Brown claimed that, far from seeking Mr Murdoch’s favour, as a minister he had consistently sought to thwart him.
Mr Brown’s version of his relationship with News International and the wider media invited questions about his consistency. Conservative backbenchers asked them, or tried to.
Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Mr Brown how his righteous fury against the media could be reconciled with his employment of spin doctors such as Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride, men who did deals with journalists on his behalf. Nadhim Zahawi asked if Mr Brown was so hostile to News International, why did his wife once host a “slumber party” at Chequers for Mrs Brooks? In neither case did Mr Brown answer.
The Cabinet Office last night issued a statement in response to Mr Brown’s claim that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, stopped him from launching an inquiry into alleged phone hacking. A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Cabinet Secretary will consult urgently with the former prime minister on whether this advice should be released.”
Rupert Murdoch is facing growing calls for an inquiry in the US after senators questioned whether News Corporation had engaged in "criminal" activity in America, including the possibility that the relatives of 9/11 victims had their phones hacked.