Lord Ashcroft: Why the disclosures of how Gordon Brown was targeted have saddened but not surprised me
Two stories relating to Gordon Brown have been high on the news agenda over the past 24 hours: one relates to allegations that the medical records of his sick son had been illegally obtained, the other that details of his private financial affairs were “blagged”.
I am neither a political ally of the former Labour Prime Minister nor a personal friend but I feel sympathy towards him that he should be targeted in this way. I also feel revulsion that any journalist and private investigator should have allegedly teamed up to target the medical records of a young, seriously ill boy.
However, neither of these latest claims against two News International papers –The Sun and The Sunday Times – has surprised me because, for more than a decade, I have been aware of both the practice of “blagging” – impersonating an individual in order to obtain confidential information about him or her – and the vulnerability of medical records.
Unlike others who have jumped on the bandwagon to express their outrage at this month’s “hacking” and “blagging” revelations, I detailed my concerns fully and publicly six years ago.
Let me turn first to the subject of medical records (and I should point out that in the case of young Fraser Brown, The Sun insists that it discovered he was suffering from cystic fibrosis through entirely legitimate journalistic means).
In my book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, first published in 2005 and which dealt with my dispute with The Times, I wrote: “The Times is certainly not the only newspaper that routinely uses private detectives to obtain illegal information. The man in the street would be appalled if he knew how often it goes on and how easy it is to obtain information on an individual, famous or unknown.”
Having now learnt of the tactics that were used to try to obtain details of Mr Brown’s financial affairs, I can say that I was targeted in a near-identical way. Last Friday, I used my blog to highlight how a team from The Times, including Tom Baldwin, now Ed Miliband’s Director of Communications, targeted me back in 1999.
I detailed how Gavin Singfield, a private investigator, was tasked by Mr Baldwin and his former colleagues with accessing information from a bank account held at the Drummonds branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Charing Cross Road, London. The bank account from which The Times journalists sought information belonged to the Conservative Party, and the paper’s interest was confined to payments – perfectly legal ones – which I had made to that account.
However, this was not the only occasion that private investigators linked to News International papers had targeted me.
Many years ago, I discovered that a private detective had successfully – and again illegally – obtained details of my private tax affairs from the Inland Revenue (now HMRC). These were details that eventually found their way into the pages of The Sunday Times.
I decided to carry out my own investigation – involving a vast amount of time, money and effort – into those who had been targeting me.
Eventually, the Inland Revenue assisted me by carrying out internal inquiries and it discovered that one of its tax offices had received a phone call (it later emerged there were several phone calls) from someone purporting to be me. The caller was able to quote my unique taxpayer reference number and he also had accurate details of a small tax repayment I had received.
In March 2002, Sir Nick Montagu, then the chairman of the Inland Revenue, wrote personally to me saying: “It is now clear that the caller was masquerading as you, and I am extremely sorry that we failed to spot as bogus someone who was able to give a reference number which matched your name and who displayed some familiarity with your tax affairs.”
Following my public allegations last Friday against Mr Baldwin and his former colleagues from The Times, I was amused to see how Mr Miliband appears to have become Mr Baldwin’s spokesman when Mr Miliband had, of course, hired Mr Baldwin to be his spokesman. It is a curious role reversal and one wonders how long it can continue?
Mr Baldwin denied to his new boss that he had commissioned a private investigator to target me. But he has not denied that The Times commissioned Mr Singfield. Nor has he denied that he worked with the private investigator. Nor that he was responsible for handling the unlawfully acquired material. And that is because he cannot do so; too many people know the truth.
Mr Baldwin has used weasel words to try to keep his current job. He has not, however – either now or in the past – sued me for highlighting details of his various illegal activities. Why has he not moved to protect his “reputation” if my series of allegations are so wide of the mark?
Given the events of the past few days, I am now hopeful that the Metropolitan Police, having admitted at the weekend that its probe into hacking allegations was inadequate, will now carry out a new inquiry into the activities of the “blaggers” who targeted me, Mr Brown and others.
For the moment, I am not publishing documents in my possession – obtained perfectly legitimately, by the way - because I do not wish to jeopardise what I now hope will be a renewed attempt by the police to bring Mr Baldwin in front of a criminal court.