Rebekah Brooks called Brown to say she knew of son's illness
In the autumn of 2006, Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah, were struggling to come to terms with the news that one of their children was seriously ill.
Fraser Brown, born four months previously, had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
That was not all the couple — whose firstborn child died in infancy in 2002 — had to contend with. They were also dealing with the knowledge that The Sun knew of the boy’s condition, and planned to publish.
The woman who broke that news to Mr Brown, who was chancellor at the time, was Rebekah Brooks, who was the newspaper’s editor and is now the News International chief executive at the eye of a growing storm that threatens the media company.
Investigators working for News International repeatedly targeted Mr Brown and obtained highly personal medical and financial information about him and his family, his allies claimed. The allegations meant that the scandal that brought down the News of the World was spreading across Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group.
Letters, tape recordings and other records, released with Mr Brown’s co-operation, indicated that both The Sunday Times and The Sun obtained confidential information about Mr Brown and his family while he was chancellor.
The disclosures would also shift attention away from accusations of “hacking” mobile phone voicemail accounts and on to other, potentially illegal, practices often known as “blagging”, trying to obtain information by trickery or deception.
The most emotive allegations about Mr Brown related to his son’s illness. When Mrs Brooks called Mr Brown in October 2006, he and his wife had only recently learned of his son’s condition, which often leads to a shortened lifespan.
Mr and Mrs Brown were understood to have been “extremely distressed” when, days later, The Sun broke the story on its website. Fraser’s illness became front-page news across Fleet Street.
Some accounts yesterday suggested that The Sun had obtained the information by getting access to the medical records of Fraser, who is five years old next week.
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP, said in the Commons: “The former prime minister’s son’s medical records were targeted by other News International papers.”
However, Mr Brown was understood to have suspected that the paper may have learned of his son’s condition from messages left on his voicemail or that of his wife.
David Muir, a former aide to Mr Brown told ITV News that the information was “obtained by what could be illegal methods”.
It also emerged that Mr Brown may have been targeted by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator jailed for hacking phones for the News of the World. Mulcaire was understood to have worked for other newspapers.
Last year, Mr Brown asked Scotland Yard if it had any evidence that he had been targeted by Mulcaire and was told there was none. However, the police reopened their inquiry in January. Detectives subsequently wrote to Mr Brown to tell him that his details were found in Mulcaire’s files.
Evidence released yesterday also suggested that Mr Brown was subjected to News International information-gathering operations more than a decade ago.
One apparent incident of “blagging” involved a con man working for The Sunday Times obtaining details of his purchase of a London flat linked to Robert Maxwell, the disgraced media tycoon.
In 1992, Mr Brown bought a flat in Great Smith Street in Westminster from a company controlled by Mr Maxwell. In January 2000, The Sunday Times disclosed that Mr Brown had bought the flat for £130,000.
The paper reported that the full market value of the flat at that time would have been at least £163,000, meaning the deal saved Mr Brown more than £30,000.
Mr Brown bought the flat from Arthur Andersen, the accountants acting as administrators for the collapsed Maxwell companies. Its solicitors were Allen and Overy, one of the country’s biggest law firms.
Recordings released to the BBC yesterday appeared to show Barry Beardall, a convicted fraudster, telephoning Allen and Overy in 2000 and obtaining details of the sale.
In the recordings, Beardall gives his own name and says he is an accountant calling from the “Dealson group of companies”. He says the fictitious firm is considering buying the flat and needs to “verify” the 1992 sale price.
“I just wanted to know how much it was originally sold for,” he says, before asking for the name of the Maxwell company that had owned the flat. The price and other details of the sale are then given to him.
Allen and Overy confirmed yesterday that it had advised Arthur Andersen, but refused to comment further.
The Sunday Times report led Conservative MPs to claim that Mr Brown was “part of a network of money and favours” linking senior Labour figures and Mr Maxwell. Mr Brown has always denied any wrongdoing over the flat sale.
Allies of the former prime minister also suggested that details of his personal bank account were repeatedly obtained by people working for The Sunday Times.
Mr Brown’s bank, Abbey National, was said to have found evidence that in January 2000 someone working for the newspaper had telephoned its staff pretending to be Mr Brown. At least six times, that person had obtained details of Mr Brown’s account.
After the incidents, an Abbey lawyer was understood to have written to John Witherow, then and now the editor of The Sunday Times. It was understood that Mr Brown was given copies of the letter. The lawyer told Mr Witherow that Abbey suspected that “someone from The Sunday Times or acting on its behalf has masqueraded as Mr Brown for the purpose of obtaining information from Abbey National by deception”.
Abbey National was taken over by Santander 2004. A Santander spokesman said yesterday that “for data protection reasons” it could not discuss Mr Brown’s account.
It was also reported that Mr Brown was told in 2003 that confidential police information about him could have been passed to private detectives.
The allegations related to a Devon and Cornwall officer who had acted illegally in taking data from the Police National Computer and giving it to private investigators.
Police records and court transcripts reported by the Guardian suggested that among those investigators was Glen Lawson of Abbey Investigations in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In 2000, Mr Lawson was said to have requested a police check on “James Gordon Brown”, the former prime minister’s full name. In response, he received a fax telling him that there was “no trace” of Mr Brown on the computer.
Mr Lawson had refused to say why he made the request or confirm if he was acting on behalf of a newspaper.
News International declined to discuss the reports about Mr Brown yesterday, although company sources signalled that they believed that The Sun’s report about Fraser Brown had not involved any illegal activity.
In a statement, the company said: “We note the allegations made today concerning the reporting of matters relating to Gordon Brown.
“So that we can investigate these matters further, we ask that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us.”
The claims about Mr Brown’s treatment by News International further soured relations between the company and the Labour Party.
Under Tony Blair, its newspapers were consistently supportive of Labour, but that relationship began to fray during Mr Brown’s 2007-10 premiership.
Despite his extensive efforts to woo executives, News International switched its position in 2009.
In a move that infuriated Mr Brown and his allies, the company announced during the Labour Party’s annual conference that The Sun, regarded as its most influential title, was no longer backing Labour and would support David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Labour attacks on News International have been led by MPs close to Mr Brown, including Tom Watson, a former defence minister.
He said News International and its newspapers would face even more damaging disclosures about their conduct in the weeks ahead, arguing that the company’s alleged wrongdoing was not confined to the News of the World.
In the Commons yesterday, Mr Watson described the scandal as “a story of institutional criminality at News International”.
Criticism of News International regarding its alleged treatment of Mr Brown was not confined to Labour figures.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader and a friend of Mr Brown, said its behaviour had been “reprehensible”.
He told the BBC: “The allegation … was that the effort was made not just to get financial information, but medical information, including medical information of Mr Brown’s children. In this catalogue of infamous behaviour, what could be more reprehensible than that?”