Times apology to Gordon Brown undermines its Leveson credibility

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The Independent Online

Back in 2008, shortly after becoming editor of The Times, James Harding redesigned the paper. Most notably, he changed page two to become a prominent noticeboard for the values and beliefs of the publication.

On Wednesday on that same page two, alongside leader articles on the moral failings of Barclays bankers and Olympic drug cheats, The Times carried a telling admission of its own culpability in a matter of no little significance.

The lengthy apology to the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his family was damaging. Not only had The Times got a story wrong, but it contributed to a corporate vendetta by its parent company, News International, attempting to come to the aid of its sister paper, The Sun.

The subject of the apology was the long-running saga of the medical condition of Mr Brown's youngest son, Fraser.

The Sun, under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks in 2006, sensationally revealed that the then four-month-old boy had cystic fibrosis. The Browns have claimed that the story made them "incredibly upset" and that the former Chancellor was "in tears" when he saw it.

Ms Brooks told Lord Justice Leveson in May that "we discussed the story directly with the Browns before publication" and she wasn't aware the family had "a concern of that nature".

But she certainly was aware of Mr Brown's feelings in July of last year when he gave an emotional interview to the BBC and The Guardian published claims that News International journalists had "targeted the former Prime Minister". Rupert Murdoch's organisation reacted angrily and The Guardian was forced to run an apology for incorrectly reporting that The Sun had obtained its story from medical records. Coming only four days after the closure of the News of the World, the implication that The Sun had been illicitly accessing confidential files was incredibly damaging to News International's most valuable title and had to be quashed.

News Corp has spent more than £53m on its management and standards committee, which is tasked with cleaning up Mr Murdoch's British newspaper business. Information has been passed to Scotland Yard and several members of The Sun's staff have been arrested, but The Times has remained untainted by the police investigations.

For 10 months the Leveson inquiry has been examining media standards. Mr Brown gave evidence in June. He told Leveson how he believed The Sun had obtained its story. The medical authorities in Fife had informed him that "they now believe it highly likely that there was unauthorised information given by a medical or working member of the NHS staff that allowed The Sun, in the end, through this middleman, to publish this story".

He said the authorities had apologised to the Brown family and supported his statement with a letter from John Wilson, chief executive of Fife NHS Board. Mr Brown denied that he had "given explicit permission" for The Sun to publish.

Mr Murdoch was once an admirer of Mr Brown, who in turn courted News International executives. This is a relationship gone sour. After Mr Brown's evidence to Leveson, The Sunday Times asked: "Is he a liar, a fantasist or just in denial?"

Then, back in Scotland, the Dundee-based Sunday Post ran a piece saying it had known about Fraser Brown's health problems but had agreed to a request from the Browns not to run a story. To some News International executives, this was manna from heaven. Hadn't Mr Brown told Leveson, on oath, that "only a few people, medical people" knew about the boy's condition before The Sun's story?

They wrote to Leveson to complain and a story promptly ran in The Times, which reported "Brown should back up his Leveson claim". Except The Sunday Post did not know the key fact that Fraser had, or was even being tested for, cystic fibrosis, merely that he had been unwell. Mr Brown's testimony stood and The Times had to run its long apology.

In doing so, it has undermined its claims to be reporting Leveson with an even hand at a time when the British newspaper industry is supposedly trying to clean up its reputation and introduce regulatory reform.

In view of some of The Times' previous brave coverage of the hacking scandal, which has won Mr Harding praise and prompted speculation that he may have antagonised Mr Murdoch, this is a shame.