Tony Kane, Monday 20 August 2012
Tom Watson, the MP who played a major part in unravelling the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, paid a visit to Wimbledon in July as a preliminary to his appearance at the Wimbledon BookFest on Wednesday 10 October in the Big Tent on the Common, to talk about his book, Dial M for Murdoch.
He was younger than I had thought, and full of energy. His personal and political life has been wholly immersed in the News of the World media scandal since 2004. So how, I wondered, had the scandal affected his life? ‘It has dominated my life so much so that my marriage has failed. It absorbed all my energies. It has taken over my life. At one stage I found that I was being followed. My every movement was monitored and my phone was hacked.’ He suffered the loss of friends and experienced intense stress for many years and he still obsessively makes mental notes of unfamiliar vehicles parked outside his house. ‘When you are at the receiving end of the Murdoch bullying it is quite frightening and disturbing and leaves a mark which is sometimes difficult to erase.’
Watson’s bio is quite impressive. He was president of the student union while at the University of Hull. His first job was in marketing. He was elected MP for West Bromwich East in 2001 and since that time has held various government positions including Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence. During that time he was instrumental in ensuring that the soldiers shot for cowardice in World War I received pardons. He has not always been popular in his own party as he was one of the signatories to the letter to Tony Blair urging him to resign and, as a result, was criticised at the time by the leadership of the Labour party.
He felt that his work on the Murdoch scandal had reinvigorated his political career. ‘I had decided,’ he explained, ‘that after all the political back stabbing of the Blairite government and Brown administration that I had had enough of ministerial politics. In June 2009 I decided that I was going to retire to the back benches and observe the political scene.’ He little realized that within a few weeks he would be involved in investigating the Murdoch scandal. He was unaware of the effect that this would have, not only on his life but on the lives of many people who had been touched by the News of The World and the Murdoch empire.
Tom explained how his book tracked the scandal from 2004 to the present day. He considered that the Leveson Enquiry was doing valuable work in uncovering the corruption behind the scenes and that more and more revelations seemed to be appearing day by day. ‘It is a fact,’ he said, ‘that all parties had become too close to the media.’ He felt that it had an unhealthy effect on our democracy. ‘The corruption spread to many areas - politics, the police and other newspapers. Political parties believed that to get elected they had to get the recommendation of the red tops.’ During the Parliamentary Select Committee, Tom compared News Corporation to a Mafia organisation.
I asked if, after investigating the Murdoch empire over the last eight years, he believed in shackling the press and reducing its impact. ‘No. I am a passionate believer in the free press, but it has to be brought under control. There was too much power in Murdoch’s hands and the only way forward, in my opinion, is to limit the number of papers and media outlets that any one person is allowed to own.’ Tom considered that many newspapers have done valuable detective work in the past uncovering matters of public interest and this should continue, but the criteria should be whether it is in the public interest and not just about social scandal or delving into the private lives of ordinary citizens.
I said that I was surprised that the book used the third person when quoting him. ‘Yes we probably would not do that again but Martin Hickman (joint author and Guardian reporter) and I thought at the time that it reduced my profile in the book. We didn’t want to overemphasise our roles, and’ he added, ‘we also had a deadline to meet.’
Dial M for Murdoch was published three days earlier than was advertised because there was a fear that Murdoch would stop its publication. Tom is reported as saying ‘I have a hunch it will be one of the most attacked books this year.’
Tom Watson will be at Wimbledon Bookfest on Wednesday 10 October www.wimbledonbookfest.org