Exclusive: James Macintyre interviews Tom Watson

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Exclusive: James Macintyre interviews Tom Watson

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In an exclusive interview, Tom Watson warns that the worst of the hacking scandal is yet to come. Photo: Lucy Watt

The hacking scandal is not over yet and new revelations on computer hacking are set to “dwarf what we have seen so far,” Tom Watson believes.

Talking exclusively to Prospect, the MP who has spearheaded the parliamentary probe into phone-hacking declares: “We are not through this scandal yet. Computer hacking is next and it may dwarf what we have seen so far.”

Referring to “Operation Tuleta,” the police investigation into computer hacking reporting to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, Watson says: “I have seen evidence that strongly suggests computer hacking was more widespread across a number of industries. By this I mean the use of “Trojan” devices used to illicitly disclose the content on hard drives.” He adds: “The police inquiry has quite a long way to go before the full scandal is revealed.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Watson:

  • Reveals he is “Disappointed that some of my colleagues would lend their reputations to the Sun on Sunday”—referring to Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and David Miliband.
  • Outlines his version of attempts by Rebekah Brooks to “exact retribution” on him via senior Labour politicians.
  • Calls on his former ally Gordon Brown to “take responsibility for relationship” with Murdoch and “reveal all contact” with News International.
  • Describes Rupert Murdoch’s UK titles are “the ultimate floating voters—with menace.”
  • Praises Louise Mensch as “the most honest member of the [Culture, Media and Sport select] committee… I like her a lot.”
  • Talks about his own feelings of “isolation” during the hacking scandal’s exposure, and his own uncertain future.

On Labour colleagues writing for the Sun on Sunday:

Watson expresses his disapproval over fellow Labour MPs’ willingness to contribute to the new title that Murdoch started in February to replace the News of the World.

“I felt disappointed that some of my colleagues would lend their reputations to the Sun on Sunday so quickly. ‘O, most wicked speed to… incestuous sheets,’ he says, quoting Hamlet. So far, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and David Miliband have contributed to the new title.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know they need to communicate through these columns. But the way the Sun on Sunday was published in an act of bravado—I thought there should have been a respectable time period before they jumped in.”

On whether Brooks tried to rein him in:

“Well, I can only go on what people tell me and there’s quite a lot of—a lot of conversations I’ve had with many people that suggest to me that out of some sense of personal loyalty to Tony she felt she needed to exact retribution for my resignation… and I’ve always believed my sense was people around him would use Rebekah Brooks and the Sun to go big guns.”

On Gordon Brown phone call:

“I have a very clear recollection of a phone call with Gordon Brown where he says Rupert Murdoch has asked Tony Blair to ask me to ask you to pull back from your investigation—it was this parliament, after the election, after the parliamentary report, when I’m getting up in parliament. Now I have to be fair to all three of the people—[laughing]—Gordon Brown says he has no recollection of the phone call, Tony Blair denies making the phone call, and Rupert Murdoch denied making it to Leveson. But I simply restate that it’s not a conversation you forget.”

On Brown and News International:

Pressed on his ally Gordon Brown’s relationship with News International, which in 2008 saw Brooks stay over at Chequers, Watson says: “Gordon Brown can speak for himself but I very clearly feel that he should take responsibility for the relationship, just like Tony Blair and David Cameron.” He calls on Brown and Blair to “reveal all contact, including private emails” to clear the air.

Watson regrets policy changes under Labour aimed at adhering to Murdoch’s will. “We clearly had policy pre-’97 on cross-media ownership that didn’t find its way into legislation post ’97. Though I’ve never met a minister who said they’ve taken a policy position because of the Murdoch position, I’ve also never met a minister who doesn’t know what are the corporate goals of Murdoch’s company.”

On Murdoch’s UK titles—and the Daily Mail:

Watson describes the News Corporation titles—The Sun, the now-closed News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times—as “the ultimate floating voters—with menace. And they are absolutist. They have a way of looking at life which is very binary—plus a cult of personality.”

Labour figures including Alastair Campbell might well disagree with Watson when he says of the Daily Mail, still powerful in its appeal to Middle England: “See, I like the Mail. I would disagree with half the things it stands for but it’s a well-written paper and you know where you stand with it. They kind of pretty much treat all MPs with an equal amount of contempt.”

But they might agree, at least in hindsight, with his view that “The insidious thing about the way the Murdoch papers behave in politics, is that they are divisive within parties as well as within parliament.”

On his own isolation and being portrayed as “a crackpot”:

“There were wild thoughts going through my mind and it was a bit like shouting into a vacuum. I’d seen a lot of evidence that showed very deep contact between News International journalists and very serious people from the criminal underworld, that they’d had for many years.” Watson took to sneaking back into his own home, and noting the registration numbers of cars parked outside.

“If I’d seen it, the police knew about it and weren’t doing anything. So there’s a sense that I’m saying all this in parliament and no-one’s reporting it, the police know about it and haven’t done anything, other MPs basically think I’m a crackpot and yet I’m stirring a hornet’s nest with all these bad people.” Watson was “obsessively doing freedom of information requests” into the lunch dates of senior policemen in the Met, going back ten years, to find evidence of socialising with senior people from the News of the World.

On Rupert Murdoch:

Watson calls for Murdoch senior to show “genuine contrition” over the hacking scandal. He adds: “I don’t think he really thinks he’s responsible for this. And he is. There is a sense that the global company he runs [is] run like a dysfunctional family firm, so they need to put in serious pieces of corporate governance, and that’s not getting staff to sign 35 page conduct documents—that’s about getting accountability. So [Murdoch’s] 12 per cent of the shares and 43 per cent of the vote—I don’t think people think that’s fair. The gesture would be getting the share arrangements in good order, which would allow the big institutions that have invested in companies like that to have a greater say in corporate governance. I would imagine that most investors would think that being chairman and chief executive has failed the corporate governance test as well, so dividing those two roles up would be a very good move forward for reform.”

On Louise Mensch:

Watson confirms the suspicion that he gets on well with Louise Mensch, the Conservative on the Culture Select Committee with whom he has clashed over Murdoch. “I think she’s the most honest member of the committee,” he says. “I fundamentally disagree with her on nearly every point. But she believes this stuff. I think she’s naïve but she believes it. People question her motives but she’s just flipping strong willed and dogmatic. I like her a lot.”

Mensch, elected MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire in 2010, offers a symmetrical compliment: “Tom Watson was the biggest surprise to me when I got into parliament. I’d heard all the stories–Brown’s consigliere and so forth. I thought of him as a Dark Lord of the Sith. Turns out he is the most likeable guy imaginable, totally straight and takes no crap from anyone. He genuinely believes News Corp is a force for evil and he acts accordingly. I diametrically disagree with him. But [he is one of] his party’s biggest talents.”

On his own future:

“I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to do in my private and political life. I would like to stand again but my seat has been cut in half [in the proposed boundary changes] so I might not be able to stand again. The strange thing about this whole affair is that I do genuinely lack personal ambition now. There are things I do because I enjoy it and I’m very ambitious for Ed Miliband but I don’t have to do it. I can do it in whatever capacity. You know if he wanted me out of the shadow cabinet tomorrow I wouldn’t be unhappy.” He laughs. “In fact I’d probably be relieved.”


—The full article on Tom Watson will appear in June’s issue of Prospect 



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James Macintyre
James Macintyre is Prospect's politics editor and co-author of "Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader"