Interview: Tom Watson MP, author of Dial M For Murdoch
FOR years, Tom Watson has worked to uncover the truth about News International but, he tells Stephen McGinty, it has taken a personal toll
THE chances are slim of anyone confusing Tom Watson MP, with his trendy bold black glasses, dark sombre suit, pristine white shirt and tightly knotted tie with the Lizard King, Jim Morrison. However the spirit of the lead singer of The Doors has proved a guiding light to the Member for West Bromwich East on his lonely three-year campaign to illuminate the darker areas of the media empire of Rupert Murdoch. Like all dedicated aficionados of the leather-trousered front man, Watson has been on a pilgrimage to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where Morrison’s gravestone bears the inscription in Greek “according to his own daemon”.
Watson, driven by his own relentless spirit to bring the media mogul to account, attended a shareholders meeting of Murdoch’s News Corp in Los Angeles and, after raising questions there about the phone hacking scandal, he set off to commune with Morrison at the Townhouse bar in Santa Monica, in whose basement sits a live venue where Morrison once tripped and smashed his front teeth. You see, Watson’s obsession with detail extends beyond the chronology of e-mail correspondence at News International.
So on the eve of Rupert Murdoch’s historic appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, there was only one album suitable to focus the mind and so sharpen questions into skewers: The Doors’ LA Woman.
It’s a Saturday morning, and Watson is in his flat in London, lying back on the sofa, with Radio 4 playing softly in the background, as he recalls his album choice: “I have always loved Jim Morrison and the album itself has a mix of bang ’em out tracks with quiet rhythmic tracks that are just good for thinking.”
Time to think has been in rather short supply for the 45-year-old over the past year, and when it has presented itself the thoughts have frequently turned dark. If you were to expect Watson to be in the most ebullient of moods, on the grounds that he has helped bring Rupert Murdoch to account, scuppered his bid to buy out BSkyB, snapped the cables of connection and influence between News International and a succession of prime ministers and brought about a chain of events that could lead to the imprisonment of a number of senior executives – not to mention having co-written a fast-paced account of the phone hacking scandal, Dial M for Murdoch – then you would be sadly mistaken. Watson has the weary tone of a veteran of hand-to-hand combat, glad to have survived but conscious of the cost.
During the past three years that he has pursued News Corporation he has been maligned and libelled, threats have been delivered via friends and he was followed by a private investigator hired by the News of the World. (Watson feared that he had become paranoid, so it was a relief to discover that they really were out to get him. Alastair Campbell later said in a witness statement that Rebecca Brooks, the chief executive of News International and former editor of the News of the World said: “With Tom Watson, it’s personal, and we won’t stop until we get him.”) At one point, having discovered links between News International and criminals connected to a murder, Watson feared that he himself might be bumped off.
“There were wild thoughts going through my head at that point,” he says. “I was beginning to make links between people in the company and really unsavoury characters from the criminal underworld. It was unbelievable to see it unfold with nobody else taking it seriously. It was the solitude of the knowledge that played on my mind and they were probably not rational thoughts but they were thoughts that were going through my head.”
The heaviest price he has paid has been his marriage to Siobhan, with whom he has two young children, Malachy and Saoirse. “The pressure of the aggressive media intrusion, coupled with, I guess, my decision to pursue the scandal to the end, was the sort of deciding factor (in the collapse of my marriage). Yes.” I ask if there is part of him that thinks if he had kept his head down he would have been able to keep his marriage? “I think about that a lot … it might be the case, I don’t know. My wife and I are now happily split. We have a strong relations. We have two beautiful children so there is no point in replaying that conversation you have with yourself when a relationship ends. You always think what might have been, had you taken a different course of action.”
Even now, following the publication of the Culture, Media and Sport’s select committee report that branded Rupert Murdoch as not “a fit person” to run a major international corporation, Watson says he does not feel a sense of satisfaction. “I don’t feel satisfied. I feel relieved. It is like a weight is shared. I still feel a little unfulfilled by it, because I don’t feel the whole story has been told. Having been on it for three years, I am more confident the whole story will come out.
“Maybe one day I will feel satisfied but I don’t at the moment, because I don’t think this is over. We are not at the end of it. People are aware there was wrongdoing and a cover-up but the people who did it have not been brought to justice and I think the full extent of what happened within that company – we still don’t know. Hopefully one day I can feel complete relief and move on.”
Among Watson’s concerns is that Tommy Sheridan, the former MSP and leader of Solidarity, who was jailed for perjury in January 2011 following his defamation case against the News of the World, may be the victim of a miscarriage of justice. News International e-mails which the editor of the News of the World said were lost, were, in fact, in storage. But does he really believe that Sheridan didn’t lie on the stand about his sex life?
“I honestly don’t know. I don’t want to understand his sex life, that is up to him. Nor do I want to pass judgement on what he did or didn’t do, but what I do know is that the jury, when they made their judgment on an 8-6 vote were not in full possession of the facts. I think there were things that happened in the company and information that they applied for under disclosure that was not made available and that could have influenced the jury’s decision.
“In the circumstances where a man is facing having his liberty taken away from him, that test of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is there because that is what you have got. You can’t say ‘on balance of probability’. They have got to be certain in their minds that he is guilty and they need to be in possession of all the facts in order to do that.
“I have not seen this information, by the way, but we now know, and we didn’t know then, that the company had e-mails to do with the Sheridan case that were applied for under disclosure that the company said did not exist because they had been deleted, but we now know they do exist.
“We also now know that whilst Tommy Sheridan was told his phone was hacked he was not given all the data in an unredacted format from the Metropolitan Police and for all I know that might have significantly contributed to the way the case was conducted. I am not a lawyer but I am fair-minded and I think the jury should have had that information.
“I have tried to remind people of the facts of the case and I think the Crown Office and Strathclyde Police should be taking this very seriously because the jury did not see that information.”
Watson is swift to say, however, that Sheridan was correct to fire his lawyer, Aamer Anwar after he agreed to write a weekly column in the Scottish Sun on Sunday.
“If what we now know is true, that News International went to extraordinary lengths to investigate Tommy Sheridan, and there is his lawyer on the payroll of the company that he is going to have a case against in years to come, it seems a clear conflict of interest and they have done the right thing to part company.”
Was he surprised when Anwar, after all he had previously said about the Murdoch empire, decided to take their shilling?
“I don’t know Aamer, but I wouldn’t write for the the Sun on Sunday. It might be that he felt he wanted a platform to get his views over, and I do think you have to justify that to yourself and the people around you. On the straight conflict of interest, I think there was one.”
Watson finally met his foe, in the confines of the House of Commons committee room, where a protester tried to throw a foam pie in the Rupert Murdoch’s face, only to be slapped down by Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng. “I took some paper towels over to him and asked him if he was OK and he said, ‘Thank you very much.’ He was very polite. I asked him if he would like some water and he said, ‘Yes.’ So I brought a jug.
“He is a remarkably charismatic man and quite disarming, but that day I was so focused on my question plan that that was the only emotional sense I got of him. I didn’t go any deeper, I have not had a private conversation with him, if asked for a judgement, I won’t hold him in contempt at all. I guess, I just forthrightly want him to take responsibility. We believe he is evading his responsibility and almost evading himself.”
What of the future for Watson, the curry-loving, computer-game playing – “Skyrim is the best game of the year” – MP? He has been rewarded with the newly created deputy chair of the Labour Party, but sounds too beat to relish the role.
“In my political life I guess I find it harder to take seriously some of the day-to-day machinations of politics… When you first get in as an MP you really want to get things done, but now I am more laid-back about that.”
Thankfully, a holiday in Butlins with his kids now beckons, and when it comes to Rupert Murdoch’s grip on politics in Britain, he dearly hopes that it can now be summed up by one of Jim Morrison’s songs The End.
TOM WATSON FACTFILE
• TOM Watson was born in January, 1967 and educated at King Charles I School in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, before going to Hull University where he was elected president of the Student’s Union. Having developed a taste for politics, he went on to chair the National Organisation of Labour Students, and after graduation he worked in marketing and advertising before taking on the role of national political officer of AEEU trade union.
• Elected the MP for West Bromwich East in 2001, he quickly saw the benefits of the web and started a blog. He was also an early adopter of Twitter. In May 2006 he was appointed a Parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Defence where he secured the pardon of 306 British and Empire soldiers who had been executed for “cowardice” during the First World War.
• In September, 2006 he signed a letter to Tony Blair urging him to resign, which Blair said was “disloyal, discourteous and wrong”. After resigning from the Blair government following the publication of the letter, Watson later returned to government under the premiership of Gordon Brown serving as secretary for the Cabinet Office. He asked to leave the government in 2009 after coming under huge tabloid pressure when he was wrongly implicated in a plan by Brown’s special adviser, Damien McBride, to smear David Cameron and George Osborne.
• As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he was a driving force behind the investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World and News International’s cover-up. After Rupert Murdoch was forced to appear in front of the committee, where he claimed that “this is the most humble day of my life”, Watson went to Claridge’s and celebrated with a bottle of pink champagne.
• He has the final edition of the News of the World framed on the wall of his parliamentary office.
• His favourite film is The Big Lebowski.
• Dial M For Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman is published by Allen Lane, £20.