Media: It's a dirty old World

It was an old story, with little proof. But still the News of the World got its man.
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The Independent Culture
Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World journalist who "outed" the Cabinet Minister, Nick Brown, as homosexual, defended himself in last Sunday's paper. "As the Chief Crime Reporter at the News of the World, I have to operate at the very sharpest end of journalism to bring our readers the stories of crime, vice and deceit amongst the great and the good or the lowest of the low."

This defence was accompanied by a picture of the naked Thurlbeck with his face and privates blacked out. But this was not Thurlbeck's explanation of how he got the front page "political exclusive" story of an Agriculture Minister's sexual proclivities. Rather, it was a defence of another Thurlbeck article in the paper - a two-page expose of a supposedly "kinky" couple he says offered massage and sexual services from their guest home. Thurlbeck was defending his methods after the couple claimed they were set up by the intrepid reporter.

"I am NOT ashamed of these pictures," said Thurlbeck. Such is the weird and wonderful world of the News of the World. Naked reporter exposes "swinging" husband and wife. A minister is outed: this is done not by running the unsubstantiated allegations of Nick Brown's former lover, but by using Nick Brown's denial to condemn him.

"The man has made a series of lurid and fanciful allegations about his gay sex encounters with the 48- year-old Minister - allegations which Mr Brown totally denies and which have not been substantiated in any way." Equally sanctimoniously, News of the World boasted they had not paid for the story.

Events leading up to the weekend's revelations are murky. The Labour Party and media circles have long known that the Newcastle MP and Blair confidante was homosexual. Two years ago, Nick Brown told one gay labour insider that he was worried that it would eventually come out that he was gay. Brown was concerned that being gay would go down badly with the hard men of Newcastle politics and also his family, in particular his elderly mother.

Brown told the insider that there was no reason for it to come out, as he had had very few boyfriends. Like many politicians before him, he was to learn that ghosts of the past too often come back to haunt you. In Brown's case, it was a former boyfriend who had a lengthy relationship with the MP which apparently ended before the election.

The usual route for former lovers and wives who want to sell their "kiss'n'tell" stories of the rich or famous is Max Clifford - the publicist who specialises in getting maximum pay-outs for such stories.

Indeed, Clifford told The Independent that he got a call last April from a "Mr Robinson" who told him he had been having a sexual relationship with a Cabinet Minister. The caller said he was a rent boy and had a sexual affair for over a year. Clifford says: "The man wanted to remain anonymous and was worried about being turned over by the newspaper." Clifford told him that he could say anything, provided he had evidence.

A week later, the young man called again. This time, he asked Clifford to post him the train fare to come down from Newcastle. Clifford refused, but did tell him that the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday were the best payers for such stories. Clifford asked him whether he had any evidence - such as answerphone messages or cards. "He said, `yes, I think so. He showered me with gifts'," Clifford recalls the man saying.

Clifford did not hear again from the caller, who he believes decided to go it alone and avoid paying Clifford's percentage. "That's why he didn't get paid," Clifford says wryly.

According to sources around Nick Brown, the MP had known for some time that this former partner was prepared to spill the beans. During the election, Brown received calls from the man which Brown suspected were attempts to trick him into making admissions that were being tape recorded. Whether the News of the World was involved at this stage, is unclear.

After the resignation of Ron Davies two weeks ago, and the "outing" of Peter Mandelson by the gay, former MP, Matthew Parris, on Newsnight a few days later, Nick Brown suspected he might be next.

Nick Brown has no shortage of enemies. Before his appointment as Agriculture Minister in July, he was the Government's chief whip. By all accounts, he was a tough, if not ruthless, enforcer for the Government. He lead the investigations into sleaze in a number of local labour parties, including the suspension of the Doncaster Labour Party. He also suspended three Labour MPs from the Party while they were investigated over a range of allegations.

Meanwhile, the News of the World was talking to Brown's former lover. While in no doubt that Brown had had a relationship with the man, their investigators could get no corroboration of the man's claims that he had been a rent boy, or that Brown had paid him for sex.

Late last Friday afternoon, the News of the World's editor, Phil Hall, rang Nick Brown at the Ministry. At the time, Brown was chairing a meeting between senior officials at the MAFF's Smith Square headquarters. Brown adjourned the meeting. Hall put to Brown the list of allegations against him. Brown told Hall he would consider the situation and call him back.

Brown then contacted Downing Street. Discussions with Tony Blair followed in which Brown told the Prime Minister that while he was gay, he had no skeletons in the closet. Brown offered to resign. The Prime Minister said that he wanted him to stay in post.

By Friday evening, rumours were already circulating round the Labour Party headquarters that a Cabinet Minister was in trouble with one of the tabloids. Through Friday night and Saturday, there were a series of calls between Downing Street and the News of the World. Meanwhile, Downing Street and Nick Brown discussed what would be the best course of action.

Eventually, at 5.30pm on Saturday afternoon, Downing Street issued a detailed statement to the News of the World, later distributed to the media generally. Nick Brown admitted that he was a homosexual, but denied that he had paid for sex, only helping out his friend at the time with payments of pounds 20 for taxi fares, and a handout of pounds 80.

The News of the World ran the story as a front- page splash, with a detailed account on pages two and three written by Chief Crime Correspondent, Neville Thurlbeck. It was written using the classic "man denies beating his wife" tactic, allowing the paper to out the Minister as gay and rehearse all the allegations while presenting them as Brown's denials. It was a busy day for Thurlbeck, who had also been writing the defence of why he asked the "kinky" couple to perform sex in front of him.

The overall media response to the widely-reported statement surprised Downing Street in that it was not homophobic and recognised that Brown had done nothing wrong. The News of the World was pushed back on the defensive. Phil Hall said that Brown had "volunteered" the statement. "Which we have published in full. We have not published the young man's account in any form." Downing Street, understandably, described the tabloid as disingenuous, claiming that the paper had been tracking Mr Brown for two years, just waiting for the right opportunity.

For Neville Thurlbeck, it had been just another week of exposing "the great and the good or the lowest of the low".