The Sunday Times has hit back at claims made by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown that it had paid ‘elements in the criminal underworld’to ‘do disgusting work against him”.
Describing them as a ‘ragbag of wild accusations’the paper stated yesterday: ‘He was wrong.”
The accusations were made in a BBC interview in which Brown also said that the paper targeted people who were ‘completely defenceless”.
Brown also made claims against the News of the World, The Sun and the Sunday Times to The Guardian – for a piece which appeared on Tuesday last week, and in an emergency debate in the Commons on Thursday.
The key claims were that The Sun accessed medical records to reveal that Brown’s son Fraser had cystic fibrosis in 2006 and that the Sunday Times ‘blagged’private information from lawyers and a bank to investigate Brown’s purchase of a London property in 2000.
The Sun refuted the medical records claim last week after revealing that the story came from a tip-off.
According to the Sunday Times, The Sun did however tell the Browns that they were intending to publish the story (rather than asking them for permission). Apparently Brown was determined not to let The Sun have the story as an exclusive so issued a statement through the Press Association at 7pm that evening. This decision apparently prompted a telephone exchange between then Sun editor Rebekah Brooks and the Browns where she tried to persuade them to let The Sun have the story exclusively.
The Brown accusations against the Sunday Times stemmed from a story in 2000 about his purchase of a Westminster flat from a company owned by a ‘very well-known criminal’– media tycoon Robert Maxwell.
The Sunday Times said that ‘subterfuge to discover the truth was legal because it was in the public interest”.
According to the paper, in January 2000 a reporter found public Land Registry documents reavealing that Brown bought is flat from TV polling company AGB Research in 1992. AGB was apparently part of the Maxwell business empire and its assets were sold off after the tycoon’s death in 1991 amid a police investigation into his plundering of the employee pension funds.
According to the Sunday Times, fellow Labour minister Geoffrey Robinson was a director of AGB’s parent company.
The Sunday Times said that it sought to check the purchase price of the flat by asking Barry Beardall, a ‘businessman”, to ask lawyers Allen and Overy what it was. They were acting for accountants Arthur Anderson which had handled the sale of the property.
The Sunday Times said that Beardall used his own name to find out that Brown paid £130,000, which the Sunday Times said was at least £30,000 less that the typical price of flats in the area at the time.
Brown revealed last week thatAbbey National, which held his mortgage for the flat, had written to him alleging that someone acting for the Sunday Times had called its Bradford call centre six times pretending to be Brown and had been given information.
The Sunday Times said it is still trying to establish whether any journalist on the paper had sought to access Brown’s mortgage information 11 years ago. But it said that if they did ‘such activities would be legal as the story was clearly in the public interest”.
According to the Sunday Times, Brown’s claim that the paper used “criminals” was a reference to Beardall – who later in 2000 (after publication of the article) was charged with attempting to smuggle alcohol into Britain.
The Sunday Times said in its report: ‘Why did the former prime minister depict Beardell as a whole criminal underworld, and who were the ‘completely defenceless people’ he was referring to?”
The Sunday Times sent Brown a series of questions about his accusations last week. It said that instead of responding to the accusations, Brown said he would pass the email on to the police.