Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has produced four on-the-record sources to counter a Sunday Telegraph story which claimed he had told Rupert Murdoch he would “smash” his media empire.
Brown told the Press Complaints Commission that the 10 July story was ‘entirely incorrect”, had been misleadingly presented as fact and should never have appeared.
The PCC ruled today that the original story breached clause 1 of the Editors’ Code (accuracy) because it presented a contentious anecdote as fact and the paper should have gone to Brown for comment in advance of publication. But it did not censure the Sunday Telegraph because it said the paper’s offer to publish a clarification provided sufficient remedial action, even though Brown said it did not go far enough.
Brown complained via lawyers Reed Smith that the story headlined: “Inside story of Murdoch’s special relationship with our politicians” was inaccurate and in breach of clause 1 of the Editors’ Code.
The article claimed that Rupert Murdoch was “once warned by Gordon Brown, while still in No 10, that he would smash the tycoon’s media empire if Labour won last year’s General Election”. The context was said to be that “at the time, some members of Mr Brown’s inner circle were secretly preparing a package of measures that included an inquiry into phone-hacking and an investigation into media ‘plurality'”.
Brown said he had not made any such threat in his telephone call with Murdoch. He said that the call, which was a personal one, had been about The Sun’s reporting of Afghanistan, which he considered to be undermining the war effort.
He said a contemporaneous follow-up email sent to Murdoch confirmed his recollection of the call. Brown also complained that the Sunday Telegraph had not sought his comments before publication.
According to Brown, he contacted the paper as soon as the story appeared online and it was then amended to include his denial, albeit ‘buried within the text”.
The article has since been removed from the Sunday Telegraph website. Brown has rejected offers of either a letter for publication or an interview.
Brown said he wanted a correction to be published putting the record straight which said that the story was ‘wholly wrong’and which included an ‘unreserved apology”.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, the paper’s political editor had become aware of the claims about the content of the phone call from a member of Brown’s “inner circle”.
It said that another member of the ‘inner circle’had repeated the anecdote, independently and without prompting.
It said that the two ‘pre-publication sources in this case provided the information on a pre-condition of confidentiality’and offered Brown the following correction:
‘Following our article ‘Inside story of Murdoch’s special relationship with our politicians’ (July 10), Gordon Brown has asked us to make clear that, during a telephone call while Prime Minister, he did not threaten Rupert Murdoch about what would happen to his media empire after a General Election.”
Brown supplied four on-the-record witness statements from individuals who he said had listened to the telephone call, in full or in part, and another from an individual who was briefed on it after it had been made.
He suggested the following wording:
‘In our July 10 2011 edition, we wrongly reported that in a conversation between Gordon Brown and Rupert Murdoch Mr Brown had threatened Mr Murdoch generally and specifically about what would happen to Mr Murdoch’s empire after a General Election. This report was wholly wrong, and we apologise unreservedly to Mr Brown.”
Ruling that the Sunday Telegraph’s correction was sufficient, the PCC did however say that the Sunday Telegraph had breached clause 1 of the code (accuracy) by not putting Gordon Brown’s denial in the first version of the story.
It said: “…newspapers cannot simply rely on confidential sources when material provided by them is said to be inaccurate.
“On this occasion, the newspaper had not provided any form of on-the-record evidence to corroborate the allegation and had not asked the complainant for his comments prior to publication. In thecCommission’s view, this latter point was crucial.
“Although the information had been based on confidential sources, the commission took the view that the story had initially been presented as a factual statement in the copy (later attributed to an aide) and readers would not have been aware that the accuracy of the story may have been in dispute.
“The specific claim in the article – central to the article’s argument about the relationship between the political elite and News International – was plainly a significant one, which reflected directly on the complainant.
“Given the seriousness of the claim, the commission considered that the newspaper should have put the allegation to the complainant before publication…the omission of the complainant’s position in regard to this point had led to a breach of clause 1 of the code.”
However, the PCC ruled in the Sunday Telegraph’s favour in the sense that it said the paper’s offer of a clarification was sufficient.
PCC director Stephen Abell said: “The commission was satisfied that the action both offered and taken by the newspaper remedied the breach of the code, and is pleased that the text was published in yesterday’s edition of the newspaper.”