London – Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought new and alarming charges on Tuesday to the broadening scandal enveloping Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain, accusing one of the most prestigious newspapers in the group of employing “known criminals” to gather personal information on Mr. Brown’s bank account, legal files and tax affairs.
The claims came a day after reports that two Murdoch newspapers may have bribed police officers or used other potentially illegal methods to obtain information about Queen Elizabeth II as well as Mr. Brown.
And two former journalists for The News of the World — the newspaper at the epicenter of the scandal, which the Murdoch family closed last weekend — said on Monday that police officers had been bribed to use restricted cellphone-tracking technology to pinpoint the location of people sought by the papers in their pursuit of scoops.
Political momentum gathered on Tuesday for a sharp, if largely symbolic, rebuke to Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation, in the form of parliamentary motion opposing the company’s proposed takeover the satellite broadcast giant British Sky Broadcasting. The government said that it would join the opposition Labour Party and support the motion on Wednesday, calling on Mr. Murdoch to abandon the $12 billion bid for the shares of the broadcaster that his company does not already own. Mr. Murdoch had hoped to save the deal, which still needs regulatory approval, by shuttering The News of the World.
Members of Parliament at a hearing on Tuesday questioned top police officials, including Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who was in charge of the initial hacking inquiry in 2006, and who declined to reopen it in 2009. “In hindsight, had I known what I should have known, it was a poor decision,” Mr. Yates said.
A separate Parliamentary committee on Tuesday said it would summon Mr. Murdoch, his son James and Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News Corporation’s British newspaper group, known as News International, to testify before the committee next week, according to news reports.
Since flying to Britain over the weekend, Mr. Murdoch has assumed command of damage control efforts at his London headquarters amid a torrent of new revelations, including reports that newsroom malpractice extended far beyond The News of the World to two other newspapers in his British stable — The Sunday Times, an upmarket broadsheet, and The Sun, the country’s highest-selling daily tabloid. Mr. Brown accused The Sunday Times — owned by News International, the British subsidiary of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation — of employing “known criminals” to gather personal information on his bank account, legal files and “other files — documentation, tax and everything else.”
“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,” Mr. Brown, who was Britain’s Labour prime minister from 2007 to 2010 after serving for a decade as chancellor of the Exchequer, told the BBC on Tuesday.
“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 working with the Sunday Times,” Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Brown added: “I just can’t understand this — if I, with all the protection and all the defenses and all the security that a chancellor of the Exchequer or a prime minister has, am so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, unlawful tactics, methods that have been used in the way we have found, what about the ordinary citizen?”
The Guardian newspaper reported earlier that Mr. Brown’s bank, Abbey National, alerted him that someone acting for The Sunday Times had posed in his name — a practice commonly referred to as identity theft, or blagging — to obtain details of his account six times in 2000, when he was chancellor. The BBC said that the effort was made as part of an inquiry by the paper into allegations that Mr. Brown had bought a property in his native Scotland at below-market value, something Mr. Brown has strongly denied.
But the most damaging aspect of the affair involving Mr. Brown related to his son Fraser, now five years old, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. Mr. Brown told the BBC on Tuesday that he had never publicly discussed his son’s medical condition. But a person close to Mr. Brown said on Monday that he believed that The Sun gained access to his son’s medical records for an article about his illness that ran in November 2006, four months after the boy’s birth.
Mr. Brown said on Tuesday that he and his wife Sarah were “in tears” when they learned that details of the health issue were going to appear in the newspaper.
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The BBC, quoting its sources, said the information about the boy’s condition had been obtained first by The Sunday Times, and passed to The Sun. Mr. Brown said that Ms. Brooks, then The Sun’s editor, called him to tell them that the tabloid knew of the boy’s condition, which they had believed was something known only to themselves and medical professionals who were caring for their son.
In a statement, News International said it noted the allegations about Mr. Brown, adding: “So that we can investigate these matters further, we ask that all information concerning these allegations is provided to us,” Britain’s Press Association news agency reported. The statement said The Sun was satisfied that its story about the boy’s cystic fibrosis had been obtained legitimately.
But Mr. Brown said: “They will have to explain themselves. I can’t think of any way that the medical condition of a child can be put into the public arena legitimately unless the doctor makes a statement or the family makes a statement.”
A person close to Mr. Brown said that the former prime minister asked Scotland Yard last year whether his personal details were among the 11,000 pages of notes seized from Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for The News of the World who was jailed in 2007 for hacking the phones of the royal household. Scotland Yard confirmed that, the source said.
Phone hacking and other illegal or unethical methods have also been common at many British newspapers that are not Murdoch-owned. But the focus for now is on the Murdoch empire, which confronted what many have called an existential threat on Monday by revising its attempted $12 billion takeover for Britain’s most lucrative satellite television company, British Sky Broadcasting, in ways that appeared to delay the bid for at least six months.
Many commentators in Britain said Mr. Murdoch appeared to be playing for time, in the hope that public and political anger over the current scandal will abate, making room for politicians and regulators to judge the takeover on its business merits, and not on the basis of retribution for the hacking scandal.
The revelations about the intrusive activities directed at the queen and Mr. Brown have seized the headlines, driving home the realization that nobody, not even the most powerful and protected people in the land, had been beyond the reach of news organizations caught up in a relentless battle for lurid headlines and mass circulation.
A wide segment of British society, from celebrities to ordinary families wrestling with personal tragedies, has been shown to be potentially vulnerable to the newspapers’ use of cellphone-hacking, identity theft, tracking technology and police bribery — perhaps even clandestine property break-ins, if some reports circulating in recent days are true.
The BBC and The Guardian, in their Monday reports, cited internal e-mails from a News of the World archive in which requests were made for about $1,600 to pay a royal protection officer — one of several hundred Scotland Yard officers eligible to serve in the palace security detail — for classified information about the queen, Prince Charles and other senior members of the royal family in what a Scotland Yard official described as a major security breach. The Guardian article said two officers on the royal detail were involved and that the e-mails from an archive assembled by The News of the World were exchanged by a senior executive and a reporter, neither of whom it identified.
The accounts said the money was used to obtain a copy of a contact book used by the royal protection service — a volume known as the Green Book, according to the BBC — that contained information about the queen, Prince Charles, other senior royals and their friends and contacts. A report in The Evening Standard newspaper said the information included “phone numbers, and tips about the movements and activities” of the queen and her husband, Prince Philip. The BBC said the book also gave details of friends of the royal couple, their palace staff and other regular royal contacts. A Guardian report said the police had informed the palace that the cellphones of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, may have also been hacked.
The BBC also reported that an e-mail requesting approval for the money to buy the contacts book was written by Clive Goodman, The News of the World’s royal correspondent, who served a four-month jail term in 2007 for his role in an earlier hacking case. The request for funds was addressed to Andy Coulson, a former editor of The News of the World and senior aide to Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr. Coulson was questioned by police for nine hours on the hacking allegation and other alleged abuses after he was arrested last Friday. He was released on bail.
Prime Minister Cameron said on Monday that he was outraged by the diversion of the contact book, describing the alleged police involvement in the palace intrusion as “a dereliction of duty” and adding, “We need to get to the bottom of that if it is true.”
Separately, an inquiry by The New York Times, which included interviews with two former journalists at The News of the World, has revealed the workings of the illicit cellphone tracking, which the former tabloid staffers said was known in the newsroom as “pinging.” Under British law, the technology involved is restricted to law enforcement and security officials, requires case-by-case authorization, and is used mainly for high-profile criminal cases and terrorism investigations, according to a former senior Scotland Yard official who requested anonymity so as to be able to speak candidly.
According to Oliver Crofton, a cybersecurity specialist who works to protect high-profile clients from such invasive tactics, cellphones are constantly pinging off relay towers as they search for a network, enabling an individual’s location to be located within yards by checking the strength of the signal at three different towers. But the former Scotland Yard official who discussed the matter said that any officer who agreed to use the technique to assist a newspaper would be crossing a red line.
“That would be a massive breach,” he said.
A former show business reporter for The News of the World, Sean Hoare, who was fired in 2005, said that when he worked there, pinging cost the paper nearly $500 on each occasion. He first found out how the practice worked, he said, when he was scrambling to find someone and was told that one of the news desk editors, Greg Miskiw, could help. Mr. Miskiw asked for the person’s cellphone number, and returned later with information showing the person’s precise location in Scotland, Mr. Hoare said. Mr. Miskiw, who faces questioning by police on a separate matter, did not return calls for comment.
John F. Burns and Jo Becker reported from London and Alan Cowell from Paris. Ravi Somaiya, Don van Natta and Graham Bowley contributed reporting from London, and J. David Goodman from New York.
This story, “Gordon Brown Alleges Murdoch Paper Hired 'Known Criminals',” originally appeared in The New York Times.