News International insiders today insisted that the paper’s story revealing that Gordon Brown’s son had cystic fibrosis came through “legitimate” means – not the illegal hacking of medical records, as has been widely reported today.
And the Press Complaints Commission has revealed that it has no record of Brown ever getting in contact over the story.
Press Gazette understands that The Sun learned the then four-month-old boy had the condition in 2006 – when Rebekah Brooks was editor – from a tip-off. Guido Fawkes’ blog is reporting friends of former Sun journalist George Pascoe-Watson – who was bylined on the piece – stating that the source was a visitor to the hospital.
The paper contacted the office of then Chancellor Brown to find out if the story was true. Apparently, Number 11 said it was and that they would be putting out a statement.
The Sun asked if they could have the story exclusively, and Number 11 said no – so The Sun put the story up on its website ahead of publication in the following day’s paper.
The Sun website story preceded the official statement by about an hour.
National press insiders believe if Brown had asked for his privacy to be respected in this matter via the PCC no story would have been printed.
Press Gazette understands that there has been at least one other instance of the press observing a blackout over coverage of the medical condition of the child of a high-profile individual in recent years.
A News International spokesperson said: ‘We note the allegations made 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.”
But a company insider said News International was ‘comfortable’that the story was obtained by legitimate means.
Brown today told the BBC he and his wife were ‘in tears’after learning that The Sun wanted to publish the story.
He said: “I think that what happened pretty early on in government is that the Sunday Times appear to have got access to my building society account, they got access to my legal files, there is some question mark about what happened to other files – documentation, tax and everything else.
“I’m shocked, I’m genuinely shocked, to find that this happened because of their links with criminals, known criminals, who were undertaking this activity, hired by investigators with the Sunday Times.”
Brown added: “I just can’t understand this – if I, with all the protection and all the defences and all the security that a chancellor of the Exchequer or a prime minister, am so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, to unlawful tactics, methods that have been used in the way we have found, what about the ordinary citizen?
“What about the person, like the family of Milly Dowler, who are in the most desperate of circumstances, the most difficult occasions in their lives, in huge grief and then they find that they are totally defenceless in this moment of greatest grief from people who are employing these ruthless tactics with links to known criminals.”
It is alleged that data ‘blaggers’ working for The Sunday Times obtained Brown’s bank details and information about a property purchase in 2000 when he was Chancellor. This information was apparently used to publish a story alleging that Brown had purchased a flat at below the market price from another member of the Government.
Times legal editor Frances Gibb notes today that data blagging ‘may fall foul of the law only if it involves an intention personally to make money by deception and is quite distinct from illegal activities such as hacking phones”.
She notes that journalists and private investigators have a ‘public interest’defence when blagging private information if the aim is to expose serious wrongdoing.