Sunday Times’ Witherow ‘misled’ readers on Brown bank job

RUPERT Murdoch’s top UK editor John Witherow has been accused of “seriously misleading” readers about his paper’s use of an illegal private eye to steal Gordon Brown’s personal bank records, Byline Investigations can reveal.

Witherow’s The Sunday Times published an aggressive 1,600-word rebuttal in July 2011 when Brown and broadsheet rival The Guardian accused it of obtaining by deception the former Prime Minister’s personal mortgage data.

The paper cast Brown’s claim he’d been a victim of fraud as “outrageous”, “false”, and a “ragbag of wild accusations”, as it insisted: “The Sunday Times never broke into his bank account”.

But today, in a blow for 66-year-old Witherow – now editor of Murdoch’s flagship The Times – the private detective who “fished for stories” in Brown’s account on up to 40 occasions for the paper has admitted: “Gordon Brown got it right.”

“Several editors and journalists at the Sunday Times knew that I had accessed Gordon Brown’s bank account. I also got into his mortgage account”

John Ford

John Ford, a former telephone pretext ‘blagger’ and specialist data thief who has blown the whistle on his 15 years’ illegal work for The Sunday Times, said: “I was acting on their instructions and they received and used the product of my activities, knowing full well how I had obtained it.”

For the first time, trained actor Ford, 52, names David Leppard, one of Witherow’s most trusted senior journalists and editor of the Insight investigative team, as his commissioner in the Brown mortgage blags.

He said: “Several editors and journalists at The Sunday Times knew that I had accessed Gordon Brown’s bank account. I also got into his mortgage account.

“Including his utility accounts, I estimate that I fraudulently penetrated his accounts between 25 and 40 times. David Leppard directly commissioned me to do this.

“Why The Sunday Times would lie about this fact in black-and-white, I do not know. It’s seriously misleading the public.”

Denigrated: The Sunday Times under Witherow (r) attacked Brown (l) in its defence over illegal newsgathering
Denigrated: The Sunday Times under Witherow (r) attacked Brown (l) in its defence over illegal newsgathering

Ford reveals around 25 editors and journalists commissioned him to carry out illegal acts over a decade-and-a-half working near exclusively for Rupert Murdoch’s heavyweight Sunday UK newspaper. Leppard, 60, would go on to become Assistant Editor.

Telling how The Sunday Times broke the law and its own regulatory code of practice and then concealed the truth, Ford said: “Witherow’s most frequent role in respect of my activity was, to the best of my knowledge, issuing letters to complainants after a blagging exercise had been carried out.

“He assured parties that ‘no person employed by The Sunday Times’ – or words to that effect – had been engaged in any such subterfuge. Any such statement of course, at its heart, was disingenuous and false.”

Ford’s trade at The Sunday Times was selling it unlawfully obtained billing data and bank account transactions on an industrial scale. In late December 1999 and early January 2000, Ford turned his ‘dark arts’ toward Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Exclusive: Ford names David Leppard for first time as Gordon Brown blag commissioner
Exclusive: Ford names David Leppard for first time as Gordon Brown blag commissioner

David Leppard’s Insight unit wanted to examine the circumstances surrounding Brown’s purchase of a flat in 1992 from a company selling off the assets of the deceased pensions fraudster Robert Maxwell. It used financial records Ford blagged out of Brown’s mortgage provider the Abbey National to establish the price paid.

It led to a “weak” story saying Brown had paid £30,000 below the “typical” price paid for similar flats, although it was later found to have been bought during a “deep depression” in the housing market perfectly legitimately.

Whistleblower: John Ford today
Whistleblower: John Ford today

A decade later, at the height of the phone hacking scandal, The Guardian told how Ford had hacked Brown’s accounts six times, and Brown gave an interview to the BBC expressing incredulity at how was he was targeted, calling it “disgusting”.

Brown said: “I’m genuinely shocked to find this happened because of the links with known criminals who were undertaking this activity, hired by investigators who were working with the Sunday Times.”

The following weekend The Sunday Times hit back by denying it broke the law and denigrating Brown for standing up for himself.

But a careful examination of its feature-length rebuttal has shown it to be littered with falsehoods, disingenuous statements, and unclear assertions. 

Byline Investigations can today identify four key false statements made by Witherow’s paper:

FALSEHOOD ONE: “The Sunday Times never broke into his bank account…”

John Ford has now confirmed that he blagged into his bank, mortgage and utility accounts between 25 and 40 times over one to two-week period.

FALSEHOOD TWO: “Excerpts quoted from the Abbey National letter appear to refer only to the fact that someone was given information over the phone about his mortgage.”

Ford said: “This is disingenuous. It’s splitting hairs. I accessed Gordon Brown’s bank account and then I accessed his mortgage account. It was a fishing expedition. I found out about Brown’s Westminster salary and direct debits – I got into his account. There is no way that The Sunday Times can credibly deny it.”

FALSEHOOD THREE: “On no occasion was Brown’s ‘personal bank account accessed by The Sunday Times.”

John Ford said: “This is a lie. They are trying to suggest that because I was not a staff employee of the Sunday Times, it was not the newspaper that did it. This is a hopeless argument. I was working for them pretty much exclusively and full-time. In legal terms they were vicariously liable for what I did for them. I was acting on their instructions.”

FALSEHOOD FOUR: “(The Guardian) failed to correct its coverage and published a further article that continued to claim, wrongly, that News International journalists “had obtained information from his [Brown’s] bank account…”

John Ford said: “The Guardian had no need to correct this assertion – as it was true.”

A YEAR after the denials, Witherow changed the tune when cross-examined under oath by Robert Jay QC at the Leveson Inquiry into press conduct.

This time he admitted the blags, while the paper relied on a “public interest” legal defence for breaking the law.

However Byline Investigations can reveal Witherow’s paper carried out the Brown blags two months before the 1998 Data Protection Act it cited came into effect on March 1, 2000, and was therefore wrong to try and claim its journalistic protections.

Ford added: “The blag and the story were not in the public interest in any event. It was a fishing expedition at the time the offence was carried out. We all knew fishing expeditions were against the rules.

No defence: Witherow's paper relied on law that had yet to take effect                        Image: Getty
No defence: Witherow’s paper relied on law that had yet to take effect                        Image: Getty

“And the amount of times I got into his various accounts was not proportionate to the alleged ‘wrongdoing’ supposedly exposed in the weak story that was actually published.”

The Sunday Times’ rebuttal article also contained a misleading statement about an internal investigation the paper claimed it had launched.

The story stated: “The Sunday Times is still trying to establish whether any journalist then on the paper sought to access Brown’s mortgage information.”

Ford said: “This is misleading because The Sunday Times knew that the bank account had not been accessed by ‘any journalist then on the paper’.

“I was a sub-contractor, a freelance so I didn’t have a ‘staff’ job. The Sunday Times used this clever semantic more than once to disguise my role.

“The first time I became aware of this was after the publication of details identifying donors to a blind trust set up to gather funds in support of New Labour’s then efforts to become elected to government in 1997.

“The Barclays Bank at Hanover Square branch in Westminster, which held the account of the trust, had been penetrated by me.

“I had made a series of pretext calls pretending to be one of the signatories. Once the information identifying the donors was secured, an article was published on the front page naming the donors.

“In the internal investigation by the bank, similar to the one carried out by Gordon Brown’s Abbey National, a picture emerged of how the security had been penetrated.

“I was told that, in the face of a letter of complaint from the Labour Party, Witherow offered the standard denial that no ‘employee of the Sunday Times’ had engaged in any such impersonation.

“He must have known it would create a stalemate situation and that it would deny the injured party any further recourse to object.

“It was typically cynical for the paper to do this.”

Byline Investigations has contacted Mr Witherow and The Sunday Times’ parent company News UK with detailed questions about this story. We have yet to receive any comment…