LONDON – Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown lambasted Rupert Murdoch before Britain's media ethics inquiry on Monday, claiming the media mogul had lied under oath to the inquiry and saying that a Murdoch tabloid had undermined the British war effort in Afghanistan.
In an often bitter attack, Brown directly contradicted Murdoch's claim that Brown had vowed to "make war on your company" during an abusive phone call after Murdoch's The Sun tabloid switched its support from Brown's Labour Party to the rival Conservatives.
"It didn't happen," said Brown, adding that he had been shocked to hear Murdoch make the allegation to the inquiry in April. "This call did not happen, this threat was not made."
Murdoch's News International company fired back, saying in a statement that the mogul stood by his testimony.
Brown was 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 British media and too-cozy ties among U.K. politicians, police and the press. Among the issues the inquiry is addressing is whether newspapers have too much power over the country's political agenda.
Brown told the judge-led inquiry that The Sun was guilty of "the conflation of fact and opinion" in its coverage of the Afghanistan conflict and of his premiership.
He said 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 British war effort against the Taliban. 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 under Prime Minister David Cameron.
Two years on, Brown appeared bruised by his relationship with a press that often characterized him as prickly and awkward.
Brown spoke of his pain at seeing leaked details of his young son's health splashed in The Sun. The tabloid 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.
Police investigating phone hacking on Monday handed over the files of five journalists to prosecutors, who will decide whether to bring charges.
The ethics inquiry was set up last year after revelations that Murdoch's 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. Murdoch closed the paper in July.
Britain's current Treasury chief, George Osborne, testified after Brown. He sought to emphasize his government's independence from Murdoch, denying suggestions that he'd waved through Murdoch's multibillion-pound (dollar) bid for lucrative satellite broadcaster BSkyB in return for the mogul's political support. Murdoch dropped the BSkyB bid after the phone hacking scandal exploded.
"It is complete nonsense, and the facts simply don't bear it out," Osborne said.
Osborne was also quizzed about his role in hiring a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, as communications chief for the Conservative Party.
Coulson, who eventually became Cameron's communications chief, was forced to resign amid the scandal last year. Critics claim that Osborne and Cameron had overlooked allegations of wrongdoing swirling around Coulson because of the ex-editor's close links to Murdoch's News International, and especially to Brooks, a friend and former colleague of his.
Osborne denied that Coulson's Murdoch connections were key to hiring him.
"He was the best candidate for the job," Osborne said.
Cameron is due to testify before the inquiry on Thursday.
Associated Press Writer Raphael Satter contributed to this report. Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless