Ian Burrell: How The Times undermined its own good work on Leveson Inquiry

The implication that 'The Sun' had been illicitly accessing confidential files had to be quashed

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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.

Last 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 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 four days after the closure of the News of the World, the implication that The Sun had been illicitly accessing confidential files had to be quashed.

For 10 months, the Leveson Inquiry has been examining media standards. Mr Brown gave evidence last month. 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 … to publish this story". The authorities had apologised to the Brown family, and Leveson was given a letter from John Wilson, chief executive of Fife NHS Board. Mr Brown denied he had "given explicit permission" for The Sun to publish.

After this Leveson appearance, the Sunday Times ran a piece which asked of Brown: "Is he a liar, a fantasist or just in denial?"

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 the judge to complain and a story promptly ran in The Times , which reported "Brown 'should back up his Leveson claim'". Except that the Sunday Post had not known the key fact that Fraser had, or was even being tested for, cystic fibrosis, merely that the boy had been unwell. Brown's testimony stood up 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's previous brave coverage of the hacking scandal, which has won Harding praise and prompted speculation that he may have antagonised Mr Murdoch, this is a shame.

Former NI men face a dressing down. But can they be brought together?

Meanwhile, the Commons committee on Standards and Privileges has written to the three former News International executives accused of having misled Parliament in their evidence on the phone-hacking scandal, and asked them how they think they should be punished.

Quite how former NI executive chairman Les Hinton, former NI lawyer Tom Crone and former News of the World editor Colin Myler will respond is unclear, given they dispute the findings of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and in Hinton's case, "refute these accusations entirely".

The Standards and Privileges Committee has already decided that it will be recommending to the House that the three face the minimum punishment rather than a jail stretch. "The maximum penalty it will recommend… is admonishment," it said in a notice slipped out last week. By "admonishment", however, they mean a humiliating dressing down in front of sneering MPs. Although for that to happen they will have to find a way of making the trio attend.

It is not even expected that Myler – now editing the New York Daily News – Hinton nor Crone will be present tonight when former staffers of the News of the World gather at a bar within walking distance of Wapping for a party in recognition of the first anniversary of the closure of the paper.

A DG who is good news for Sweeney

Among journalists pleased with George Entwistle's appointment as BBC DG is the investigative reporter John Sweeney, whose histrionics during a "Panorama" on Scientologists became a viral hit.

Sweeney's work was the subject of a complaint by John Travolta, who accused the BBC man of "bigotry and animosity" after he ambushed a premiere and yelled "Are you a member of a sinister brainwashing cult?"

Entwistle, then head of BBC Current Affairs, reviewed the documentary and ruled that, apart from Sweeney's meltdown, it was within guidelines.