Hacked or not, Fraser Brown story is wrong

Image of the Sun's front page today (13th July 2011), with headline The Sun today was very proud to declare that Gordon Brown was wrong to accuse them of hacking his phone, or illegally accessing his voicemail, to make their “scoop” in November 2006, and that the real source of their story was “a shattered dad whose own son also has the crippling disease and who wanted to highlight the plight of sufferers”. The man is interviewed (anonymously) in today’s paper, and claims that he never saw Fraser Brown’s medical records. This suggests that he was someone who met the Browns when they were in hospital and engaged them in conversation, then took their story to the newspapers. It’s not clear whether they paid him. They also boast that they donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. (More: Chris Atkins @ Huffington Post, who says he doesn’t believe their claim.)

The Sun also claims that the Browns “showed no signs of discontent with The Sun” and attended various functions with Rebekah Brooks, including the latter’s wedding. As numerous recent newspaper reports have made clear, politicians attended functions put on by Murdoch and his cronies because they wanted to be on the right side of them, and in 2009 (with a general election barely a year away), that was more important than at any other time. Being at a party given by a powerful individual does not mean you are their friend.

Still, the report still constitutes an intrusion on the private grief of the family which was still coming to terms with their son’s lifelong illness. Dea Birkett, in today’s Guardian, describes this process in great detail; her daughter, now 18, is a wheelchair user (she has an archive of theatre reviews here). By the sound of things, her daughter’s disability is not extreme or life-threatening, but cystic fibrosis can be, so the Browns were facing the prospect of losing Fraser at any time, not simply that he would not be able to walk. (CF doesn’t stop you from walking, at least, not early on; it’s a respiratory condition.)

If Brown was, at that time, cutting services to disabled people, or health provision that was necessary for non-affluent CF patients and their families, to the bone, as the present government is doing, the public interest in the story would be arguable, but he was not; the story was, like so much of what the Sun publishes, merely “of interest to the public”. The man who chatted Gordon or Sarah Brown up and then passed his story on to the press had no right to do so, and it is all the more dishonourable if he accepted payment.

It does not appear that there was any indiscretion on the part of the hospital on this occasion, but I heard recently from someone who was receiving treatment in a London hospital who was passed some paper when she asked for a bit of paper to take notes on, and the paper turned out to contain names and details of the named person’s or people’s treatment which was, it seems, related to recent miscarriages. My friend told me she had destroyed the paper, but in the hands of a less scrupulous individual such material could easily find its way into the newspapers. When I was working delivering medication to people’s homes and workplaces a few years ago, discretion was emphasised as we could be delivering sensitive drugs to a well-known person, and even if not, sometimes they did not want their co-workers to know what medication they were receiving. I was just the van driver. Surely, actual doctors and nurses should know that discretion is vital.

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