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Sunday Times accused of blagging Gordon Brown's records

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News International journalists from multiple papers persistently tried to get gossip on the former prime minister Gordon Brown by "blagging" access to his bank account, legal documents and even his son's medical records, it has been alleged.

Previously, allegations of phone hacking and other illegal activity have centred upon journalists at the News of the World and private detectives in their employ. The scandal has been smouldering for years, but exploded last week with allegations that the paper had intercepted the voicemail messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler as well as the families of 7/7 terrorist bombing victims and soldiers killed in combat. The allegations prompted News International to close the 168-year-old paper, which printed its final edition last Sunday.

The new developments centre on accusations that Brown had been targeted by other papers in the Murdoch stable, most particularly by The Sunday Times during his years in government, first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister. Instead of voicemail phone hacking, the main tactic used was social engineering.

The Guardian reports that Abbey National bank reckons a "blagger", posing as the politician and working for the Sunday Times, tried to access Brown's bank account on six occasions.

An internal inquiry by Abbey National's fraud department concluded that in January 2000, someone posing as Brown succeeded in obtaining information from his account. The bank identified The Sunday Times as a likely suspect in the case and sent a letter to its editor John Witherow, concluding: "On the basis of these facts and inquiries, I am drawn to the conclusion that someone from the Sunday Times or acting on its behalf has masqueraded as Mr Brown for the purpose of obtaining information from Abbey National by deception."

In addition, Brown's lawyers Allen & Overy had handed over the former prime minister's file to an operative working for the Sunday Times. The paper used a conman called Barry Beardall, who was later jailed for fraud, to trick staff at the accounting firm into handing over Brown's financial records on the pretext that Beardall was representing a firm interested in buying Brown's flat. The ruse was apparently applied during an investigation by the Sunday Times, leading up to a story suggesting Brown had bought a flat owned by Robert Maxwell at a "knock-down price", an accusation Brown firmly denies.

The ex-prime minister accuses News International of using "known criminals" to gain access to private information, an accusation News International is reportedly investigating.

Voicemail hacking is clearly defined as illegal, but obtaining information via various deceptive ruses is a much greyer area of the law. A degree of deception is often necessary and fully justified when instances of criminality are discovered.

For example, journalists from The Guardian used deception to obtain hotel receipts that destroyed the claims of disgraced former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken.

Renewed questions have also been raised about how journalists from The Sun found out that the Browns' infant son, Fraser, had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The Browns were called by then-editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks, shortly before the paper ran a story in October 2006.

Brown was among a long list of government ministers targeted by papers from the News International stable, including former prime minister Tony Blair, former deputy prime minister John Prescott, Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett. Most of these attempts were restricted to voicemail phone hacking, but the quest for dirt on Brown was particularly wide-ranging. ®

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