Taken from this week's Big Issue in the North magazine
Tom Watson has done more than any other parliamentarian to bring the extent of phone hacking to light. But as Mark Metcalf finds, his campaign nearly didn’t happen.
If it hadn’t been for a love of football and film then Tom Watson’s crusade against the Murdoch media empire that has corrupted much of Britain’s political and civil life would never have got started.
Now, with each day of the Leveson Inquiry into media practices revealing some major sensation then not even the combative deputy chairman of the Labour Party can predict what it might recommend or when it will end. Before then, Watson is though willing to wager that some media moguls and police officers will be off to jail and the Prime Minister will apologise about hiring Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor.
Under Gordon Brown’s leadership Watson was a Cabinet Office minister but resigned in June 2009 when it was revealed that Gordon Brown’s close advisor Damian McBride intended using a blog to post scurrilous rumours about the sexual and personal details of senior Conservative politicians. Although there was no indication that Watson played any part in the affair, he subsequently appeared eight days in a row in the Sun newspaper.
The West Bromwich East MP alleges he found himself “under siege, with parked cars outside my home, people following me, my bins being rummaged through and long range photo-lens peering into my affairs. It came to a head when there was a knock at the door and my son, then aged 3, said: ‘There’s another nasty man at the door’ and so I decided to resign my post and to consider quitting as an MP.”
Watson is a big football fan; with non-League Kidderminster Harriers his first team with West Bromwich Albion a close second. He also loves film – his favourite being the comedy The Big Lebowski in which Jeff Bridges stars – and so “casting around for something to do I thought I’d try and get on the Culture, Media and Sport select committee.”
Successfully elected in July 2009, he joined the committee only two days after Guardian journalist Nick Davies revealed that, for Professional Footballers Association chief executive Gordon Taylor had accepted a £700,000 out-of-court settlement from Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers for having his phones hacked by the News of the World.
The former footballer’s case was at the heart of a network of illegal acts at Britain’s most popular Sunday paper, where David Cameron’s then director of communications Andy Coulson had been deputy and editor up until January 2007 when he resigned. Going to prison that year was another former employee, Glen Mulcaire, who admitted hacking into the phones of Taylor and five other targets, including celebrity PR Max Clifford.
“I’d only been on the committee a week when appearing before us was News of the World editor director Colin Myler. I had no idea about how deep phone hacking had gone but as a big fan of the American TV series The Wire I thought what would Lester Freamon, played by Clarke Peters, do? He would follow the money and ask who authorised the payment.
Finally we know that James Murdoch authorised it. It was paid to a victim of a crime to keep quiet. We found that the newspaper group appeared to have collective amnesia and yet when we issued a damning report in February 2010 the media – wrongly – reported we had cleared Coulson of any wrong-doing.”
By this stage Watson, had decided to re-stand as an MP at a fast-approaching general election. He had fully backed Brown in his attempts to keep the economy afloat by pumping money into it following the worldwide financial crisis but he never though thought Labour could win the election, mainly because of the party’s disunity, with supporters of Blair and Brown apparently willing to use the press to spill the beans on each other.
Watson himself had fought in the trenches of the Blair-Brown wars and he was accused by Blair of being “disloyal, discourteous and wrong” when he resigned from a previous ministerial position in 2006 and added his name to a letter calling on the then prime minister to step down. But he wonder’s whether the stories from either side “were in fact gathered from journalists listening into people’s private phone conversations.” He points out that the 44 MPs listed in Mulcaire’s files were almost all Labour.
These files stretched to 11,000 pages and yet when Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates was asked in mid-2009 to conduct a review of the 2006 Police inquiry into phone hacking he did so within eight hours and recommended no further action be taken. It later emerged that Yates “spent more time than that having dinner with News International executives” says Watson. Last July Yates quit his post and now works for the Bahrain police force, which has brutally suppressed democracy protests.
If Watson is less than impressed by Yates, that’s not the case with the enquiry teams headed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers. Started last year, there are three: one into phone hacking, another into alleged computer hacking – which Watson expects to dwarf phone hacking and possibly be Britain’s equivalent of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of American President Richard Nixon in 1974 - and then an investigation into alleged inappropriate payments to police and public officials.
“The current investigation teams are inscrutable, determined and doing a great job. Akers has said recently that they are not too far away from mapping out which police and public officials had been bribed. So some people should be very worried,” says Watson. (see below on my mistake)
Coulson, who has claimed in court to know nothing about payments to police officers or hacking, resigned as Cameron’s head of communications in January 2011 after just eight months in the Downing Street post.
Prime Minister David Cameron had given him a “second chance” and promised the Commons he would off a “profound apology if it turns out I’ve been lied to” over Coulson’s claims that he had no knowledge of illegality during his time at the News of the World. Now, Watson believes that Cameron is “very close to offering that apology.”
Six months after Coulson resigned, the Prime Minister set up the Leveson Inquiry, that alongside examining the specific claims about phone hacking, alleged illegal payments to public officials and the ethics of the press. Only days earlier Mark Lewis, lawyer for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, had shocked the nation by claiming that the News of the World had in 2002 hacked into her mobile phone after she disappeared.
The messages were subsequently deleted, and a once full voicemail facility then accepted new messages, leading Dowler’s desperate family to believe she had been listening to them and was therefore alive.
“When I heard Sally Dowler tell the inquiry say she had said to her husband ‘she’s picked up her voicemails, she’s alive’ then I was determined to see this through to the bitter end” says Watson.
Considering that some of the private investigators employed by the News of the World are known to have links to the criminal underworld then this could be considered a very brave course of action. Watson though is boosted by the ‘huge number of people who have stopped me to wish me well in my endeavours.”
As to when ‘the bitter end’ might exactly be, he’s not sure. He doesn’t believe it will be soon, estimating that the halfway point has yet to be reached on “a story that is not about the practices – terrible as they are – but a political failure with the Metropolitan Police, Criminal Justice system, Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Office all frightened of the power of the Murdoch Empire.”
That power that was set to increase last year when culture secretary Jeremy Hunt gave News Corp the green light to takeover BSkyB, only for the bid to fall by the wayside when the Dowler details became public.
Now Watson wants to see Rupert Murdoch barred from owning newspapers and media outlets here - “he is not a ‘fit and proper person’ and says Ofcom should try to withdraw his licence.
Instead of the discredited Press Complaints Commission scrapped he would like to see a new arms-length regulatory body, along the lines of the Advertising Standards Agency, on which consumers and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) would sit alongside owners and editors. Watson, a former trade union official, is convinced that Murdoch’s breaking of the print unions at Wapping in the 1980s, and the subsequent de-recognition of the NUJ, made it almost impossible for young reporters on his papers to resist instructions to act unethically.
Impressed by Leveson’s questioning of witnesses, he says “Its revelations and the police’s work will mean some media moguls will be going to prison, and it’s likely that some police officers will face the same fate.”
He wouldn’t like to predict what recommendations Leveson will make but Watson has little doubt that “there will be a moment in Parliament when all three major party leaders – Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband – will have to do the right thing. They are going to come under unbearable pressure from powerful interests to water down whatever Leveson recommends. There is going to be a defining moment.”
My mistake - in the piece (compiled by attending a function at which he spoke and then I did an interview during the interval and at the end) I misattributed the following words to Tom: "So James Murdoch should be very worried, as he authorised the payments." Watson did not in fact say these words and the error was not picked up in the editing process. Apologies for any confusion caused.