Tom Watson: “I have seen evidence that strongly suggests computer hacking was more widespread across a number of industries”
“We’re not through this scandal yet,” says Tom Watson, the MP who has spearheaded parliament’s probe into phone hacking in Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. “Computer hacking is next and it may dwarf what we have seen so far.”
Computer hacking is currently the subject of an investigation by the police, named “Operation Tuleta,” which only has a handful of officers and a relatively low profile. In July last year, the Metropolitan police confirmed that “Some aspects of this operation will move forward to a formal investigation. There will be a new team reporting to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers.” Referring to this inquiry, 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.”
Tom Watson cuts a solitary figure, for a man at the heart of a campaign against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that is making headlines around the world. At his suggestion, we meet in his office in Portcullis House at what he seems to regard as an opportune moment: during the debate over the Queen’s Speech, when the rest of Westminster has thronged into the House of Commons, MPs packing the green benches and journalists crowding into the press gallery above the chamber. Watson, who has an obsessive streak and is utterly preoccupied with his pursuit of the truth on phone hacking, has been regarded warily for years by many in his party for his role in internal battles. But his success in his quest, and his prominence on the Culture, Media and Sport select committee of the Commons has brought him back into the party fold, even if that is a role he regards with some unease.
Watson stayed up all night completing his submission to the Leveson inquiry into media standards, which began in July with a remit to investigate phone hacking at News International, the British arm of the Murdoch empire, as well as to consider media ethics and regulation. For Watson, recent months, in which the committee (working in parallel with the Leveson inquiry) has published its report on phone hacking, mark a culmination of years of battle. His often lonely investigations into the Murdoch stable of newspapers in Britain, and its relationships with the police and politicians, without much support from his own party, led him to question his own sanity, he says. These years also cost him his marriage. Today he feels vindicated; he is “feeling pretty good, actually.” Joking at his own rotundity, he says that “it feels like I’m lighter than I actually am.”
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.”
Watson’s critics—some in his own party—might say the same of him. For years, he was seen as a factional plotter—and one who changed sides. In 1994, he worked as an adviser for the new Labour leader, Tony Blair. Entering parliament as MP for West Bromwich East in 2001, Watson became Blair’s defence minister, only to resign the post in 2006 in a protest at Blair’s leadership. Watson by then supported Gordon Brown, and he was central to a plan to coordinate a series of junior resignations that led to Blair’s departure as leader in 2007.
Watson then got elected to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee. In February 2010, the committee published its first report into phone hacking, concluding that it was “inconceivable” that managers at the News of the World did not know about the malpractice. Watson was by now speaking up against News International and hacking in parliament, prompted by his discoveries about phone hacking while on the committee and a desire “to get to the facts.”
Those facts included details of close relations between politicians and the media, as well as hacking. In her evidence to Leveson on 11th May, Brooks confirmed she was close to Blair, Brown and Cameron. “In the Brooks testimony we saw a few more fragments of the real story: little messages of affection from compliant politicians,” Watson says.
Referring to an email from Frédéric Michel, a lobbyist on behalf of News International, about Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, Watson says: “The Michel email suggesting collaboration between News International and Number 10 over the phone hacking inquiry laid bare the venal acquiescence of politicians towards Murdoch’s executives. It shames us all that it was ever allowed to get this way.”
Watson says politicians’ misplaced belief in Murdoch’s influence is based on the myth that Murdoch determined election results, when instead, he argues, the proprietor and his editors have sought to back the winner. “There has very much been the parable of the emperor’s clothes with Rupert Murdoch.”
Blair, Watson says, “did what he had to do to make the Labour party credible in the eyes of the Murdoch press and somewhere along the way he’d forgotten that we’d won.”
Pressed on 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. Under Blair’s premiership, I used freedom of information requests to unearth details of Blair’s contacts with Murdoch. The Cabinet Office refused to release them, until Brown came to office in 2007, when the Blair-Murdoch phone calls in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq were revealed. But similar requests about Brown’s own dealings with Murdoch were subsequently witheld.
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.”
Watson also disapproves of his fellow Labour MPs’ willingness to start writing for 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,” he says, quoting Hamlet: “O, most wicked speed to… incestuous sheets.” 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.”
However, he is enthusiastically supportive of Ed Miliband. “I really admire Ed Miliband and I believe in him and I owe him a debt of great loyalty for the decision he took to get up at prime minister’s questions and call for the BskyB bid to be shelved and for Rebekah Brooks to go. That was a massive moment in Labour history.”
Until then, Watson felt isolated against what he saw as corruption across three pillars of the British establishment—the media, the police and politicians—to a point when his immersion in the pursuit began to consume his life. “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.
The turning point, which propelled Watson’s concerns into the mainstream and sparked the Leveson inquiry, was the revelation on 4th July last year that the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone had been hacked. Later that month came Watson’s opportunity to grill Rupert Murdoch himself when the chairman of News Corporation, the parent company, appeared before the select committee to answer questions about what he knew of hacking on his papers. “I spent three days in prep. I thought I’d feel terribly nervous, but actually I didn’t feel any wild emotion at all. I was just totally focused on sticking to getting as much out of them as I could, and then afterwards I wanted to go to bed. It had been quite stressful.” Watson decided to focus on “Murdoch senior” not Rupert’s son James, previously chairman of News International: “I just thought he’s the most powerful one, he’s the one responsible for corporate governance, let’s go for him.”
From Rupert Murdoch, Watson wants “genuine contrition.” 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.”
And what of David Cameron? The prime minister’s relationships with Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and Rupert and James Murdoch have been a factor in his recent slide in the polls, giving the impression of government by a club of cronies. Yet here, Watson offers an olive branch. “I think there is still a moment where David Cameron can do something really amazing with this. He can utterly recalibrate the relationship between British politics and the British media. I think his window of opportunity is nearly closed, and I think his conduct in the past month has made the chances of that diminish, but it’s still possible for him to rescue the situation and you know I really want him to do it. He would have my full support if he did.”
Watson wants to see changes in press regulation: “The Press Complaints Commission [the British media watchdog] is the most damaged brand in the UK and it’s got to go,” he says. Instead, he wants “light-touch regulation with an arm’s length regulator a million miles away from government with powers that would allow an editor to put a matter right when it’s gone wrong.”
On ethics, he wants a form of oath taken by journalists: “The ethics thing has been laid bare and there is a lot you can do with journalists. You can develop standards that people adhere to—not quite the kind of oath that doctors adhere to, but the industry is changing and you can restate a set of ethics that is codified in some way.”
He is confident that Lord Leveson and Robert Jay, the lead QC on the inquiry, “have got the terrain pretty much mapped out… I’m also now convinced that they probably know what has to be done, which is there are certain ‘no nos’— you can’t have massive state regulation, but so too you can’t have laissez-faire any more.”
When the second select committee report was published on 1st May, it concluded that Murdoch was not “fit” to run an international company, a judgement that provoked criticism of Watson for overshooting his brief. The committee’s vote was split along partisan lines, 6-4, with Labour and the sole Liberal Democrat voting it through against the Conservatives. Louise Mensch, the highest-profile Tory MP on the committee, claims that the question of whether Murdoch was fit to run a company was not investigated by the committee.
Mensch and Watson, the two stars of the committee, can often be seen smiling sardonically while the other is talking, and Watson confirms the suspicion that in private, they get on. “I think she’s the most honest member of the committee. 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.”
What next for Watson? As Labour’s deputy chair and director of campaigns, he has been brought back into the heart of the party under Ed Miliband, whose own accession to the top job Watson helped to coordinate behind the scenes. He can take some credit for Labour’s gain of over 800 council seats in the local elections on 3rd May. But the loner seems torn about his 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.”