An individual working for The Sunday Times called a bank pretending to be Gordon Brown to obtain details about the former prime minister’s finances, the paper’s editor said today.
John Witherow confirmed that the paper “blagged” information from Abbey National bank as part of an investigation in 2000 into the then-chancellor’s purchase of a flat from a company owned by the late media baron Robert Maxwell.
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The Sunday Times has argued that the story was in the public interest and that this would provide a defence to any charges brought under the Data Protection Act for accessing personal details, the Leveson Inquiry into press standards heard.
Witherow said the paper used a businessman called Barry Beardall to discover from a firm of solicitors how much Mr Brown paid for the flat.
“We believed that Mr Brown had purchased the flat at a cheaper price than valuers had put on it at the time,” he said.
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked him: “Abbey National, which held Mr Brown’s mortgage for the flat, wrote to you alleging that someone had called its Bradford call centre six times pretending to be Mr Brown and was given information?” Witherow agreed: “That’s right.”
Jay went on: “Did someone on your behalf pretend to be Mr Brown to blag that information?” The editor replied: “Yes.” He confirmed the blagger was not Beardall.
An article published in the paper in July last year said: “The Sunday Times is still trying to establish whether any journalist then on the paper sought to access Brown’s mortgage information.
“Even if they had, such activities would have been legal as the story was clearly in the public interest.
“Section 55 of the 1998 Data Protection Act makes it an offence to access personal data – but also makes clear that this does not apply if ‘the obtaining, disclosing or procuring was justified as being in the public interest’.”
Use of subterfuge
Witherow said the Sunday Times sometimes used subterfuge for stories in the public interest but did not carry out “fishing expeditions”.
He said the paper has employed blagging and impersonation, including employing an actor as part of a deception, but has never hacked phones.
The editor stressed that the Sunday Times always considered whether it was justified in publishing a story.
“We have been given private information about ministers involving their financial affairs, which we could see no public interest in publishing, so we haven’t,” he said.
Witherow said he met the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and other senior Cabinet ministers “from time to time”, but played down the significance of these discussions.
He told the hearing: “When you meet them in private, you don’t often learn much more than you would from their speeches or when they are giving interviews on TV.
“It’s remarkable how little extra information you do get.”