LONDON — Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday accused a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid of personally attacking him, failing the British people and undermining the war in Afghanistan through its coverage of the conflict.
In an often bitter attack on the Murdoch press in testimony to Britain's media ethics inquiry, Brown directly contradicted Murdoch's claim that the then-prime minister had made an abusive phone call to the media mogul in 2009. Murdoch told the inquiry last month that Brown had vowed to "make war on your company" after The Sun switched its support to the Conservatives.
"It didn't happen," said Brown, adding that he had been shocked to hear Murdoch make the allegation under oath.
Murdoch's News International fired back, saying in a statement that the mogul stood by his testimony.
Brown is the first in a string of current and former political leaders to appear this week at the inquiry, set up amid a tabloid phone hacking scandal to examine malpractice in the media and ties among politicians, police and the press. Among the issues the inquiry is addressing is whether newspapers have too much power over the political agenda.
Brown told the judge-led inquiry that The Sun newspaper was guilty of "the conflation of fact and opinion" in its coverage of the Afghanistan conflict and of his premiership.
He said that instead of covering the difficult decisions facing his government, The Sun had concluded "that I personally did not care about our troops in Afghanistan."
He said the newspaper had made a series of spurious claims, for example that he had fallen asleep during a service of remembrance for dead troops. Brown said he had been bowing his head in prayer.
Brown asserted that The Sun's coverage had done "huge damage" to the war effort.
The former prime minister said the press had "failed this country" by focusing on opinions and ephemera when the war in Afghanistan was at a crucial stage.
"I'm afraid half the country (Afghanistan) is falling into the hands of the Taliban," Brown said, accusing the press of failing to reflect this.
The Sun's political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, denied Brown's allegations, saying on Twitter that the newspaper had given the conflict prominent coverage.
"Military loathed Brown because they felt he didn't care about them. Sun reported that, but Gordon rewrites history to shoot the messenger," he tweeted.
Brown had a testy relationship with the powerful Murdoch press during his 2007-2010 term in office. The Sun, renowned for its political clout, backed the Conservative party over Brown's Labour in the 2010 national election. The election ejected Brown from power and produced a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.
Two years on, Brown appeared bruised by his relationship with a press that often characterized him as prickly and awkward.
Brown also spoke of his pain at seeing leaked details of his young son's health splashed in the tabloid. The Sun revealed in 2006 that Brown's infant son Fraser had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Brown said he and his wife Sarah had been distressed by the leak — which apparently came from a hospital worker — but acknowledged that Sarah had remained friendly with Rebekah Brooks, the Sun's then-editor, and even organized a 40th birthday party for her in 2008.
"I think Sarah is one of the most forgiving people I know," Brown said. "I think she finds the good in everyone."
Brooks, 44, along with her husband and four aides, was charged last month with conspiring to pervert the course of justice in connection with the phone hacking scandal.
They are the first people to be charged in the current investigation into tabloid wrongdoing, which has shaken Britain's media, police and political establishments. More than 40 people have been arrested and questioned.
The ethics inquiry was set up last year after revelations that the now-defunct News of the World had hacked the mobile phone voice mails of scores of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in its quest for scoops.
Britain's current Treasury chief, George Osborne, testified later Monday about his relationship with Murdoch's media empire. Prime Minister David Cameron faces questioning on Thursday.
Osborne spent the early part of his testimony answering questions about his relationship to the Murdoch family. He is also likely to be quizzed about his role in hiring a former editor of Murdoch's scandal-tarred tabloid News of the World, Andy Coulson, as communications chief for the Conservative Party.
After Cameron became prime minister, Coulson served as Downing St. communications chief before resigning because of the scandal.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless