Gordon Brown on the criminal-media nexus

Before the Leveson Inquiry into the British press was launched, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown set out in a powerful speech why it was needed. The speech demands a revisit now that the inquiry is well underway, says Anthony Barnett.

ourKingdom editors
30 April 2012

Before the Leveson Inquiry into the British press was launched, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown set out in a powerful speech why it was needed. The speech demands a revisit now that the inquiry is well underway, says Anthony Barnett.

I became a sustained critic of Gordon Brown, especially his encouragement and support of the creation of a database state with ID cards and the loss of a citizen's right to know and control their own information. But in researching for an article on Murdoch I was led back to his speech to the Commons of 13 July 2011 in the debate over the Milly Dowler hacking and the setting up of what has become the Leveson Inquiry. At the time I watched parts of it and felt there was too much personal bitterness, but this may have been due to the selection by news channels. Re-reading it I am struck by the combination of setting out principles needed for a free press, the experience of being subjected to one, the nature of the Murdoch enterprises, and the criminality and hurt involved by its excesses.

None of this excuses Brown’s own policies. But let's put aside the ya-boo, ad hominem, who-are-you-to-say-this posturing for one moment; I have deleted the tedious Parliamentary interruptions from this version - you can read them for yourself in Hansard if you wish. The remaining text is one of the strongest overviews as to why there is now the Leveson Inquiry and what it needs to address.


Gordon Brown's speech to the Commons, 13 July 2011:

Much has already happened today outside the House, with the announcements by BSkyB and the subsequent announcement by Ofcom only a few minutes ago that it is now examining whether News Corporation is a fit and proper person or organisation for the 38% of BSkyB that it still holds. When there have been great occasions and great questions of moral concern, it has been this House that has spoken for Britain, and over the next few months this House must show that it can rise to the challenge. With the exception of decisions on peace and war, there is no matter of greater importance than the basic liberties of our citizens. Each generation has to reconcile for its times the freedom of the individual with the freedom of the press and balance two great rights, the right of the public to information and the right of the individual to privacy. 

In nearly 30 years as a Member of this House, in opposition and in government, I have never sought to propose or impose any restrictions on the freedom of the press. At all times I have defended their right to expose any wrongdoing wherever it is found and to speak truth to power however uncomfortable it is, and indeed was at times for me. Although I will today make proposals for reform and comment on each point that the Prime Minister made earlier in the House, it is my judgment that we should reform but never undermine something so fundamental to our ordered liberty as our twin commitments to the freedom of the individual and to a free press.

I rise to speak not about myself, but for those who cannot defend themselves: the grieving families of our brave war dead; the courageous survivors of 7/7; the many other dignified, but now outraged, victims of crime and; most recently, and perhaps worst of all, the victims of the violation of the rights of a missing and murdered child. Many, many wholly innocent men, women and children who, at their darkest hour, at their most vulnerable moment in their lives, with no one and nowhere to turn to, found their properly private lives, their private losses, their private sorrows treated as the public property of News International—their private, innermost feelings and their private tears bought and sold by News International for commercial gain.

Amassed against these guiltless victims and against a succession of other victims of crime whose names I know about and have seen, and have yet to be made public, was the systematic use of base and unlawful methods—new crimes with new names: blagging, hacking, Trojans to break into computers and not just phones. It was not the misconduct of a few rogues or a few freelancers but, I have to say, lawbreaking often on an industrial scale, at its worst dependent on links with the British criminal underworld.

This is the only way to describe the behaviour of those at News International who took the freedom of the press as a licence for abuse, who cynically manipulated our support of that vital freedom as their justification, and who then callously used the defence of a free press as the banner under which they marched in step, as I say, with members of the criminal underworld. This nexus—this criminal-media nexus—was claiming to be on the side of the law-abiding citizen but was in fact standing side by side with criminals against our citizens. Others have said that in its behaviour towards those without a voice of their own, News International descended from the gutter to the sewers. The tragedy is that it let the rats out of the sewers.

When I became Prime Minister in 2007, I, with everyone else, had no knowledge of this systematic criminality within News International. I also did what any holder of the great office I held would do. With our armed forces at war in two theatres, and with my own sense of the need for a renewed national purpose, I wanted to unite the country, not divide it; to bring people on board, not to pick fights with them; and to strive to create the broadest coalition of churches and others across our nation in support of our nation’s best interests, and not wilfully to set out to make an enemy of anyone. I therefore believe it was right, in what is often called the Prime Minister’s honeymoon, however brief it turned out to be for me—and for my successor—to seek to build bridges with members of the public and the press and to strive to construct the widest coalition of understanding for our policies and purposes. I would be surprised if I am unique in politics in hoping for the best of relationships with our media.

In the month that I started at No. 10, there were already issues of state involving News International—a decision that the Government had to make on a Competition Commission inquiry into the recently acquired stake that brought its ownership of ITV up to 16.8%. It was for the Government to decide on any referral to the competition authority, and the Government approached this with no bias against BSkyB. However, after examining in some detail BSkyB’s activities, the Government, on the advice of the relevant authorities, found a case to answer and announced the strongest remedy possible—a referral to the competition authority, which went on to rule that BSkyB’s share purchase in ITV was not in the public interest. So far from siding with the News International interest, the Government stood up for the public interest by making the referral. While we correctly gave it time to sell its shares, its shares had to be sold.

Next was the proposed Ofcom review into the onward sale of BSkyB sporting and other programmes, and the claims of its competitors that it had priced BT, Virgin and other cable companies out of the market. The public interest was in my view served by due investigation. We did not support the News International interest, but stood up for what in our view was the public interest. The Ofcom recommendation, which News International still opposes today, demanded that there be fair competition. 

It is no secret that the 2009 McTaggart lecture given by Mr James Murdoch, which included his cold assertion that profit not standards was what mattered in the media, underpinned an ever more aggressive News International and BSkyB agenda under his and Mrs Brooks’s leadership that was brutal in its simplicity. Their aim was to cut the BBC licence fee, to force BBC online to charge for its content, for the BBC to sell off its commercial activities, to open up more national sporting events to bids from BSkyB and move them away from the BBC, to open up the cable and satellite infrastructure market, and to reduce the power of their regulator, Ofcom. I rejected those policies.

Those policies were clearly in News International’s interests, but were plainly not in the British people’s interests.

The truth is there in Government records for everyone to see. I am happy to volunteer to come before any inquiry, because nothing was given: there were no private deals, no tacit understandings, no behind-the-scenes arrangements and no post-dated promises. I doubt whether anyone in this House will be surprised to hear that the relationship between News International and the Labour Administration whom I led was, in all its years from start to finish, neither cosy nor comfortable.

I think that if people reflected on events as early as the summer of 2007, with the portrayal of me in The Sun as the betrayer of Britain, they would see them as somewhat absurd proof of an over-close and over-friendly relationship. Headlines such as “Brown killed my son”, which made me out to be the murderer of soldiers who were actually killed by our enemy, the Taliban, could hardly be a reflection of a deep warmth from News International towards me. The front-page portrayal of me as “Dr Evil” the day after the generally accepted success of the G20 was hardly confirmation of The Sun’s friendship and support as the world battled with the threat of a great depression.

It has been said that the relationship between News International and the Government of the day changed only because in 2009 News International suddenly decided to oppose Labour formally. I say that the relationship with News International was always difficult because Labour had opposed its self-interested agenda.

I have compiled for my own benefit a note of all the big policy matters affecting the media that arose in my time as Prime Minister. That note also demonstrates in detail the strange coincidence of how News International and the then Conservative Opposition came to share almost exactly the same media policy. It was so close that it was often expressed in almost exactly the same words. On the future of the licence fee, on BBC online, on the right of the public to see free of charge the maximum possible number of national sporting events, on the future of the BBC’s commercial arm, and on the integrity of Ofcom, we stood up for what we believed to be the public interest, but that was made difficult when the Opposition invariably reclassified the public interest as the News International interest. It is for the commission of inquiry to examine not just the promises of the then Opposition, but the many early decisions of this Government on these matters.

During the last year of our Government, information became public to suggest that the hacking of phones, and indeed of computers, went far beyond one rogue reporter and one rogue newspaper. In February 2010, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported that the number of victims was more than the handful that had been claimed. It said it was inconceivable that no one else at News International other than those convicted was in the know. News International, it said, was guilty of “deliberate obfuscation”. But already, in August 2009, Assistant Commissioner Yates of Scotland Yard had taken only eight hours—less time, I may say, than he spent dining with the people he should have been investigating—to reject pre-emptively a further police inquiry. Even the proposal that an outside police force take over the Scotland Yard inquiry had been rejected.

Having seen the Select Committee report, I immediately asked the head of the civil service to agree that we set up a judicial inquiry. Far from the so-called cosy relationship alleged with News International, which would have meant doing nothing, my answer to what appeared to be News International’s abuse of press freedom was a full judge-led inquiry to meet growing public concern.

Let me summarise the formal advice contained in a memorandum to me rejecting such an inquiry: that, while there were some new facts and there was a media culture permissive of unlawful activities and deliberate obfuscation by News International, the Select Committee did not believe that the practices were still continuing, and thus they did not meet the test of urgent public concern; that time had elapsed and evidence may have been destroyed; that the News of the World and individuals had already been punished by their resignations and jail terms; that there was no evidence of systemic failure in the police, and anyway all their decisions had been checked with the Crown Prosecution Service; and that targeting the News of the World could be deemed to be politically motivated, because it was too close to the general election and would inevitably raise questions over the motivation and urgency of an inquiry.

The memorandum stated that if an appeal was made against a judicial inquiry, such a challenge might succeed, and that there was not only no case for a judicial-led inquiry, but not a strong case for either a non-judicial inquiry or even a reference to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or even for asking the police to reopen their inquiry.

If we do not act now on what we now know, and if we do not act forcefully and with clarity, friends around the world who admire our liberties will ask what kind of country we have become. A crime has been committed against innocent members of the public; a complaint has been made to the police and no satisfaction has been given. Even when the police have had someone’s name as a likely victim, they were neither telling them nor taking action. No action from the head of the first police inquiry, Andy Hayman, whose next job just happened to be at News International; no action from his successor, who had overall responsibility for two inquiries—Mulcaire and Abelard, or what is called Southern Investigations—each with vast but unexamined archives exposing criminality on a huge scale. Inspector Yates has redefined for us the meaning of an inquiry. He not only failed to ask any of the right questions but, as became clear yesterday, he failed even to ask any of the basic questions.

I deeply regret my inability to do then what I wanted to do—to overturn the advice of all the authorities and set up a judicial inquiry. I can say for the record that, as I left office, I talked to the leader of the Liberal party and warned him that a Coulson problem would emerge, and I did so directly, and not through an intermediary who might not remember to pass on the message. At the same time, I handed him, in person, our proposal for a commission into the media, and in summer last year, I wrote to the head of the civil service to point out that the previous advice against the judicial inquiry had clearly since been overtaken by the new evidence.

I am afraid that the House must examine more recent, more damning and more alarming evidence. Because of what happened to my children, whose privacy at all times I have tried to protect, I have been sent, I have been offered, and I have had thrust upon me a great deal of evidence that is relevant to this debate, which is now for the police to examine. It is right for the House to know that the damage done in the past 10 years to innocent lives was avoidable. As early as the winter of 2002, senior police officers at Scotland Yard met the now chief executive of News International and informed her of serious malpractice on the part of her newspaper staff and criminals undertaking surveillance on their behalf. The new investigation will no doubt uncover why no action was taken within News International and what lay behind the subsequent promotion of that junior editor concerned.

In that context, and again, because of what happened to my family, I have been made aware of an additional and previously unexamined stream of orders by one of the editors at News International, Mr Alex Marunchak, to hack and to intrude—a man who was subsequently promoted to be a full editor of a regional edition of the News of the World. As we now know, a cover-up can be more damning than the original crime, and the decision of the News International chairman to pay, without reference to his board, some victims sums of around £500,000, may now be seen as the buying of silence. Given his statements to this House, that must now be the subject of full parliamentary, as well as police, scrutiny.

The freedom of the press in this country was built through the countless acts of fearless people who had done no wrong, and yet had to make huge sacrifices. Today, the freedom of the press can best be assured by full disclosure and reparation by those who know that they have done wrong. First, for the future, the press media itself should immediately press for a new Press Complaints Commission. We need one that is proactive, not passive; one that is less about protecting the press from the public, and more about properly processing the complaints of the public against the press; and one that is wholly independent, so that it can differentiate, and be seen to differentiate, between the abuse of power as a result of self-interest and what we really need, which is the pursuit of truth in the public interest.

We need to put an end to the violation of rights, but also to ensure the righting of wrongs. Secondly, therefore, News International papers, and every other responsible paper, should in future be obliged to publish—not on page 35 or 27, but on page 1—apologies to all individuals whose rights have been infringed. Perhaps in future we will know the naming and shaming of criminals inside the media by the name of one of the saddest victims, as happened with Sarah’s law. That would require News International to practise what it has so self-righteously preached to other people.

Thirdly, we must do all in our power to prevent the subversion of our basic rights again. We must therefore be ready to discuss limits to the undue concentration of ownership in the media as a whole. I must say to the Prime Minister, in response to the statement he made earlier today, that I believe that he will have to widen the remit of the commission of inquiry, so that we are sure that it will examine not just the police and general ethics, but all the evidence of the abuse of surveillance techniques and technologies, as a result of which we saw the undermining of our civil liberties.

In the long and winding evolution of our rights and freedoms, the people of this country have always been at risk from huge concentrations of power. Traditionally, they have seen the freedom of the press as a force for their freedom, but when our country’s biggest media organisation has itself become an unchallengeable concentration of power, as it was until today; when it is has held in contempt not only basic standards of legality, but basic standards of decency, too; when it has replaced freedom with licence; when it has wielded power without ever being elected to do so; and when it has regarded itself not only as above the law, but as above the elected institutions of our country, all concerned people in this House should be able to see that what should be our greatest defence against the abuse of power had itself become an intolerable abuser of power.

History will also show that a press will not long remain free in any country unless it is also responsible. If the irresponsibility that has characterised News International is not to define the public view of the media as a whole and if continued irresponsibility is not to force Parliament to take ever stronger measures to protect the public from the press, we will need far more than the closure of a newspaper one week and the withdrawal of a bid the next.


I find it strange that when I am giving to the House new evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the Conservative party, instead of listening, want to shout down the speaker. On reflection, when we are talking about people who have been abused as a result of the infringement of their liberties, the Conservative party will think it better to hear the evidence before jumping to conclusions.

Alun Cairns: It was said earlier that if these inquiries are to succeed, the tone needs to be right. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that he has contributed to that tone in the way he has provided his evidence today?

Mr Brown: Yes, because what I have sought to do is give the facts about the infringement of civil liberties, about the relationships between News International and the Government and about those instances where News International and the public interest diverge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will ask the leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister to do exactly the same on every single issue that I have raised, because it is going to be a matter of concern for the whole country, not just this month, but in many months to come: what are the precise relationships on individual policy issues between the Government of the day and one of the biggest corporations of the country? I make no apologies for setting out the record of our Government in our relationships with News International, and I hope that Members on the other side of the House will ask their leader to set out what happened in the relationship between his party and News International.

Mr Brown: I will finally take one more question, because Mr Speaker will never call me again.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. As a parent myself, I share the disgust at the invasion of his privacy, and I agree with him that the police have serious questions to answer. Nevertheless, criminality was disclosed in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report in 2003 and by the Information Commissioner in 2006. As a new Member, I ask him: why was nothing done?

Mr Brown: I have set out the record of my desire to have a judicial inquiry. It was opposed by the police, opposed by the Home Office and opposed by the civil service, and it was not supported by the Select Committee of the day. However, if the hon. Gentleman felt that it was right in 2003 that there should have been an inquiry into the media, why at no point, even until last week, did the Conservative party ever support an inquiry into the media in this country?

Ofcom—this is incredibly significant—has this afternoon announced that it is now going to apply the “fit and proper” test to the remaining holdings of News International in BSkyB. This is a further useful step, but we must now have three things: a sustained and rigorous process of investigation and disclosure; a fairer distribution of media power in our country which will eventually restore the public faith in a media that are fully and genuinely free; and, as a result of what we now know, robust measures, akin to those that I have described this afternoon, to ensure that the lethal combination of illegality, collusion and cover-up that we now know has prevailed for a whole decade can never happen again.

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