'Witherow knew' - Gordon Brown accuses Times editor over newspaper bank job
FORMER Prime Minister Gordon Brown has accused the editor of The Times of knowing about multiple illegal hacks on his mortgage account, Byline Investigations can reveal.
John Witherow has always denied that his investigative team, Insight, illegally accessed Brown’s account to get information for a story, or that he was aware of the intrusion.
But, today, the former Labour leader said Mr Witherow was aware of the unlawful episode – and accused him of ‘misleading’ the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.
"We now know that, under his editorship, at least 25 and possibly 40 violations of the law took place, to write this one story with the intention of forcing me out of office" ~ Gordon Brown
The allegation is supported by new evidence from whistleblower John Ford, an ex-private investigator who carried-out the hacks on behalf of The Sunday Times, which Witherow previously edited.
Last night, Gordon Brown told Byline Investigations: “I talked directly to the then editor of The Sunday Times, John Witherow, about the story of my flat on the night it appeared.
“He was ‘hands-on’, and fully aware of the details of the story.
“We now know that, under his editorship, at least 25 and possibly 40 violations of the law took place, to write this one story with the intention of forcing me out of office.
“He knew perfectly well that his newspaper had accessed all my mortgage details, which had been done unlawfully.
“And so, he misled the Leveson Inquiry, when he claimed The Sunday Times had not broken into my account.
“I believe that the police should now investigate these criminal acts.”
Today, for the first time, John Ford told Byline Investigations that he estimates he broke into Brown’s bank, mortgage and utility accounts between 25 and 40 times – and was paid £1,000 for his services.
He said: “I was tasked by The Sunday Times to get into Gordon Brown’s bank account when John Witherow was editor.
“Later, Gordon Brown – quite rightly – accused the paper of doing just that and, in response, The Sunday Times wrote a story denying it.
“Not only was the rebuttal an outright lie, The Sunday Times accused Brown publicly of being wrong."
“Then, the paper’s journalists and editors colluded in a cover-up. It was case of ‘omerta’ – there was a code of silence," Ford added.
“It was a matter of great pride to The Sunday Times, according to one editor, that the reporters adhered strictly to that code.”
Using a “pretext” (a form of deception), John Ford broke into the former prime minister’s Abbey National account ‘fishing’ for dirt to smear him for the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper.
But, he found none.
Eventually, as result of the illegal breach, the paper published a watered down article which was rubbished by Brown as ‘wrong' and has since been deleted by its publishers from online newspaper cuttings databases (see below for the article as it was originally published).
“Basically, they were lying to Gordon Brown and the public about what had happened” ~ John Ford
Ford, 52, was at the heart of The Sunday Times’ illegal spying operations for 15 years, having been recruited by the heavyweight broadsheet’s renowned investigative team Insight in 1995.
But, instead of doing exclusively “public interest” journalism, the former actor was tasked with mimicking Gordon Brown’s Scottish brogue.
In a series of fraudulent phone calls, Ford engaged in fishing expeditions or was in pursuit of stories too trivial to justify the illegality.
After dishonestly building-up a dossier of confidential information on Brown, Ford stole the ex-chancellor of the exchequer’s identity.
During a highly-sophisticated ‘blagging’ operation, he unlawfully tricked call centre staff at Brown’s bank into disclosing highly-confidential financial information.
Ford said: "In the end, The Sunday Times published a much weaker story than was anticipated, claiming that Gordon Brown had bought a property below market value.
"This of course, did not justify me blagging into Brown’s account multiple times."
In July 2011, at the height of the phone hacking scandal, The Guardian reported how Brown specifically accused The Sunday Times of hiring investigators to hack into his bank account.
Brown said at the time: "I'm genuinely shocked to find this happened because of the links with known criminals who were undertaking this activity, hired by investigators who were working with The Sunday Times."
Brown was right. At the time, Ford was on bail for suspected fraud committed on a different blag for the newspaper, for which he ended up receiving a police caution.
A second investigator, used by The Sunday Times, was subsequently jailed for six years for a fraud unrelated to his newspaper work.
Six days after Brown’s comments, The Sunday Times went on the counter-offensive.
The fourth paragraph of the broadsheet's rebuttal story is clear: "The Sunday Times never broke into his bank account."
Near the end of the story, the paper made a second denial: “On no occasion was Brown's 'personal bank account' accessed by The Sunday Times."
But, Byline Investigations can today reveal those statements were false.
Ford said: “Such was my belief in the editorial pre-testing of the public interest of any story where I was asked to blag or deceive that I felt it was a decision that belonged to the higher-ups, whom I trusted.
“The intrusion which resulted from my inquiries into Gordon Brown’s bank account, was outrageous and unsolicited."
“The fact that it was the chancellor of the exchequer, does not make it any more acceptable," he added.
“When the ‘story of the story’ became the issue, in the week after publication in 2000 and especially a decade later when it resurfaced during the hacking scandal, I was aware that there had been a cover-up – which was a regular occurrence when my targets suspected illegal intrusion.
“Basically, they were lying to Gordon Brown and the public about what had happened.”
Ford targeted Brown’s bank and mortgage accounts between late December 1999 and January 2000.
The bank’s chief solicitor later wrote to The Sunday Times confirming that the account was penetrated six times and asked for an explanation.
However, Ford estimates he accessed the mortgage account on several more occasions.
And the Bristol University graduate continued to ‘blag’ other confidential data, such as the ex-directory phone number of Gordon Brown’s residence in Scotland.
Nor was Ford the only private investigator tasked by The Sunday Times to illegally probe Gordon Brown’s affairs.
In a parallel operation, over the same period at the turn of the new millennium, The Sunday Times employed a second professional blagger – and kept it a secret from John Ford.
The Guardian's investigative journalist Nick Davies discovered the existence of a recording of the blag call made by Brown’s lawyers, Allen and Overy, and published it his 2008 book Flat Earth News.
The second blagger’s job was to deceive conveyancing solicitors into divulging information about the price of the flat Brown bought.
Ford said: “It was a regular policy to double-up on jobs to make sure that the information was accurate and that it was independently confirmed by two investigators from different sources.
“I found out about it.
“Eventually, the journalists stopped doubling up because they came to trust me.”
In July 2011, The Sunday Times said it was conducting an investigation into who carried out the bank blag specifically, even though many of its reporters and editors knew it was John Ford.
The paper wrote: “The Sunday Times is still trying to establish whether any journalist then on the paper sought to access Brown's mortgage information.”
John Ford points out that this was a deliberate form of words to mislead the police, Leveson and the public.
Ford was not a journalist, nor was he “on the paper”. But, he points out: “I worked almost exclusively and pretty much full-time for The Sunday Times.
“I was their resource and they knew that.”
The company that owns The Sunday Times, News International (now News UK), considered Glenn Mulcaire – employed exclusively by the News of the World as a contractor to hack phones – an employee when they paid him off in an employment tribunal.
The Sunday Times also failed to mention that Ford was on bail between 2010 and 2012, after being arrested for an unrelated fraudulent blag, also commissioned by the newspaper.
In his statement to the Leveson Inquiry, John Witherow said that the man who had been arrested for suspected fraud was “separate” to the Gordon Brown allegations.
Much of what Witherow said in his written statement to Leveson and on the stand contradicts John Ford’s version of events.
At Leveson, Witherow defended the Gordon Brown bank blagging on the grounds of public interest.
Ford said: "Witherow failed to disclose the full facts to Lord Justice Leveson.
“His public interest defence was not correct.”
The Insight investigation into Gordon Brown began at the end of 1999, when Ford claims he was called by members of its team and tasked to find out if Gordon Brown had corruptly purchased a flat seven years before in 1992.
The tip was that Brown had purchased the flat from the estate of deceased press baron Robert Maxwell.
The alleged corruption involved Geoffrey Robinson, who had worked for Maxwell, and who had also been a Labour colleague of Brown’s.
However, Robinson had left Maxwell’s company before the flat was sold to Brown and never discussed the purchase with him.
Ford discovered that Brown had borrowed £30,000 from Abbey National to buy the flat, a fact reported in The Sunday Times' front page story published on January 9, 2000.
Around the same time, the second blagger called the solicitor’s sellers, Allen & Overy, and found out the sale price of the property: £130,000.
Under the Data Protection Act, the obtaining of information by deception is a criminal offence.
The story that was published in The Sunday Times alleged that Brown had bought the flat from Geoffrey Robinson’s company at a bargain price, with a 20 per cent discount on the 1992 market value.
Mr Brown later told the BBC that the story had been "completely wrong", but the company had been "trying to prove a point" and had aimed to bring him down as chancellor.
within the law
Declining to comment on the specifics of his allegations, The Sunday Times told the BBC that it strongly rejected the accusation that it had retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally, and said it has always been its expectation and practice that its contractors work within the law.
A spokesman for The Sunday Times told the BBC's media editor, Amol Rajan, that the newspaper had "a strong record of investigative journalism over decades and has employed many contributors and researchers to work on stories, or parts of stories".
"The paper strongly rejects the accusation that it has in the past retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally," it added.
"Some allegations related to the research work of John Ford have been aired previously and we cannot comment on the specifics of these new allegations which all predate 2011."
The Sunday Times has also said that it has always been its expectation and practice that its contractors work within the law.
The Sunday Times had yet to comment at the time of publication.