Show Hide image

The Politics Interview — Tom Watson

The scourge of News Corp tells the <em>New Statesman</em> the inside story of how he nabbed Rupert a

Tom Watson is late, more than an hour late. His assistant assures me that his previous meeting has just finished and he will be here soon. The much-in-demand MP for West Bromwich East - and star of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee - is travelling on the Piccadilly Line, road-testing his new Oyster card. His mobile phone is going straight to voicemail; another good sign, as it means he is definitely (well, maybe) on the Underground and heading back.

Welcome to Watson's world. The man whose self-written Twitter biography reads "Busy dad, disorganised politician" operates on a heightened plane of chaos. Six months ago, he didn't have a parliamentary assistant, believing it an unnecessary folly at this post-ministerial stage of his career.

For one who has led the charge against News International over its involvement in phone-hacking - the biggest domestic scandal since MPs' expenses and the biggest media story in a generation - this is a curious state of affairs. He is as busy now as he was when last in government (serving as a Cabinet Office minister under Gordon Brown), if not busier.

When Watson arrives, he is full of apologies and eager to talk, his jacket already removed and white shirt open at the neck. But no sooner does he sit down than his iPhone - which has a picture of Watson and his elder child, Malachy, adorning the "wallpaper" - starts to vibrate. Then as he fields my first question, the division bell rings, signalling to MPs that they are required in the Commons chamber for a vote. He and his assistant exchange a glance. "I think I'm just going to miss it," he says.

Watson's big moment came on 19 July when he and nine fellow select committee members quizzed Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, and his son James, head of its UK publishing division, News International.

Later that day, he questioned Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International and one-time editor of the News of the World. Then, on 6 September, it was the turn of Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World at the time of its closure, and Tom Crone, the former long-time manager of legal affairs at News International.

However, it was Watson's technique when questioning Murdoch Sr that impressed - his probing was pithy and carefully sequenced, with the occasional leading question thrown in like a hand grenade. One lawyer suggested that all young barristers should be made to watch the exchange as part of their education.

Watson, who is now 44, puts the success of the session down, in part, to "massive preparation . . . For two years, I have been reading and absorbing this stuff. Then I worked for three days solid before we went in."

The other part, he says, was to work out what lay at the heart of the controversy. Once he had established that - "It's about the institutional culture at News International; this is about leadership" - he knew that Rupert, not James, should be his focus. Watson worked out how to order his questions. "At that point, I phoned up as many of my friends who are lawyers to say, 'This is how I want to do this - how would I lead it to this?'"

He asked 50 questions in total, most of them directed at Rupert Murdoch and most in the form of inverted statements, designed to draw the witness on to the questioner's territory. "It's amateurish, really, ham Crown court," he says now. Six times, James Murdoch attempted to intervene on his father's behalf. Only once did Watson let him.

“It was only afterwards that I knew I'd actually done that," he recalls, "but it was a deliberate strategy, in the sense that I wanted Rupert Murdoch to answer the questions."

When the ball drops

Murdoch appeared "completely floored" by the occasion. Most questions were followed by agonising pauses while his wife, Wendi Deng, fidgeted in the seat behind him. When Murdoch did respond, his answers were monosyllabic. "Those pauses struck me as the pauses of a man who has not been interrupted for three or four decades."

Watson, by contrast, was focused, forensic and driven. A former associate says that his motivation has been "primarily personal"; that his experience at the hands of the News International-owned Sun newspaper following (unfounded) accusations that he was involved in an online campaign to smear Tory politicians in 2009 set him on a path of retribution.

“There's probably some bad blood between Rebekah Brooks and myself," Watson concedes. (On one wall of his parliamentary office, he has hung - much like a hunter might hang a moose's head - a framed copy of the final edition of the New of the World, with its front-page headline: "Thank you and goodbye".) However, he denies that he joined the select committee in mid-2009 with the specific intention of giving the Murdoch papers a hard time. The reason, he explains, was more mundane: he wanted to gain a "specialist interest" in policy on digitisation and internet regulation.

At that time, there was little recognition of the phone-hacking story ("I knew that Andy Coulson had resigned as editor but I wasn't really conscious why"). That all changed within days when it was reported that Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association and an alleged victim of phone-hacking, had reached a £700,000 settlement with News International. "It became abundantly clear to everyone on the committee that there'd been massive wrongdoing."

Since then, it has become an all-encompassing issue for Watson. "When the ball drops, you either run with it or you don't," he says. He is reluctant to talk about the impact that the scandal has had on his personal life - he and his wife are understood to be estranged - but he does say that, for 12 months leading up to the latest round of revelations, he "felt like a bit of a crank and a conspiracy theorist".

He recalls telling a friend that he thought there were people waiting outside his flat and that he was being pursued. "You don't want to say too much, because you think, 'Am I being paranoid? Am I losing it?'"

In July, he was informed that there was evidence that the News of the World had hired a private investigator to follow him around during the 2009 Labour party conference in Brighton. "When the BBC told me that, it was almost a relief to know that those feelings you get . . . are right," he says.

At the same time, pressure was being applied indirectly. "People were saying, 'Is this in your interest? Where's this going?'"

Was any of this pressure coming from his own party, when Labour was in power? "At no point did anyone ask me to back off but we were left in no uncertain terms that this company was all over it."

In February, it emerged that Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband's director of strategy, had sent a circular to members of the shadow cabinet, warning them not to link hacking with News Corp's bid to take full control of BSkyB, and that complaints about tapping must be made in a personal, not ministerial, capacity. The circular, leaked to the New Statesman, appeared to be a coded order to "lay off" Murdoch. Watson understands why Baldwin wanted to send it, but says: "I wouldn't have written that memo."

He made sure that Ed Miliband knew of his concerns about the seriousness of the alle­gations still to come to light, about evidence linking victims of crimes and their families to phone-hacking. Yet it wasn't until July, with the confirmation that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked in 2002, that the Labour leader intervened.

Shouldn't Miliband have been bolder, much earlier? After all, Watson had made the Dowler connection on 24 March during a select committee exchange with John Yates, then acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Frustrated by Yates's "arrogant and pedestrian" approach, Watson posed what appeared at the time to be a hypothetical question: if it was proven that the Dowler family had been targeted by the News of the World, would that warrant more police resources? "He kind of looked stunned," Watson recalls, "and said, 'I'm sure it would.'" (It was this intervention that led the actor Hugh Grant to suggest Milly Dowler's name to the former NoW reporter Paul McMullan in an undercover sting for the New Statesman a few weeks later.)

Did Miliband make his intervention too late? Watson doesn't believe so. "I don't think any of the other [2010 leadership contenders] would have made the call on News International. For him to get up at Prime Minister's Questions and call for a public inquiry, call for Rebekah Brooks to go and then get to the BSkyB bid . . . the others couldn't have done that." Does he include Ed Balls, Watson's choice for leader, in that list? "That includes Ed Balls."

If, in Watson's view, Miliband acted with integrity, then surely Brown, instead of pursuing an ultimately futile courtship, should have distanced himself from Murdoch and his senior executives when he was prime minister? "There were people in Downing Street who knew that I thought something very serious lurked in the files," he says. "The ultimate lesson of this is that it's a failure of political leadership. People knew that Murdoch's media estate in the UK was too powerful and it was doing very unpleasant things."

Watson remains loyal to Brown, but not so to Tony Blair, whom he accuses both of a failure of political leadership and of failure of judgement when he agreed to become godparent to Rupert Murdoch's young daughter. The ceremony, held in March 2010 on the banks of the River Jordan, with Blair wearing white robes, was "inappropriate", particularly as it came just "a month after the parliamentary inquiry had found [News International executives] guilty of collective amnesia [and] two months before the election where his successor and successor cabinet were getting pummelled to death by Murdoch's papers".

Blair might well argue that he was a private citizen by that stage, so what he chose to do was his own business. "I would imagine he would retort in stronger terms than that."

Watson remains unpopular with the Blairite wing of the party. "Animosity among the Blairites is the same as it ever was," says a party insider. "Perhaps more so, because Watson is on a transcendental plane. He's untouchable. It must be unbearable for them."

It's strange to recall that his relations with Blair used to be good. Watson, elected in 2001 at the age of 34, was a New Labour loyalist, a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and, as late as January 2005, was nominated "Top Toadie" by the Guardian diary. Yet by then it was clear to those inside the party whose camp he was in, and the so-called "curry house plot" the following summer ensured that his Blairite ties would be severed permanently.

As for the plot - in which a handful of junior MPs agreed to send a letter demanding that Blair step aside - Watson says the story needs retelling. According to convention, the coup was planned at the Bilash Tandoori in Wolverhampton on the first Sunday of September 2006. Watson doesn't deny that he was there that night, along with Siôn Simon, a fellow MP and signatory of the letter, but suggests that if they had wanted to keep the occasion secret, the two wouldn't have "signed the visitor's book to say what a lovely curry it was. I just think that every long-form article writer needs a location to place a story."

Regrets, I've had a few

Watson, the only government minister to sign the letter, does not deny that he was seeking to force Blair's hand. However, he says: "It was all done on mobile phones, and anyway it was a riot, not a coup. It was a spasm in reaction to Tony's interview with the Times."

The interview in question, published on 1 September 2006, implied that Blair was ready to defy the Brownites over his departure. There then followed a trip to Brown's constituency home at which, according to the accepted narrative, Watson sought the chancellor's blessing for the letter - something Watson has consistently denied. He was there, he says, to drop off a present for Brown's newborn child, though he is reluctant to confirm what the present was. Legend has it that the two politicians watched Postman Pat videos with their families.

It seems inconceivable that they would not have discussed the plan - in his memoirs, The Third Man, Peter Mandelson says of Watson that he would "not in those days have blown his nose without Gordon's say-so". "I know how this looks," Watson says now, but insists that the trip to Scotland was innocent. Originally there for a ministerial visit, he wanted to turn it into a family trip, but being, in his own words, "an incompetent and slightly chaotic MP", he had failed to book a hotel. They ended up staying near the Browns and his wife suggested the visit.

There it is again, the shambolic politician, at odds with the forensic and focused select committee member. How much of this is part of the Watson shtick, an affectation? "It's all part of his lavish persona," says an associate who has known and worked with Watson since his union days. "When he was in the AEEU [the erstwhile Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union], he was a proper operator. You don't get on in the union movement without being sharp - and tough. He knows how to focus."

Watson the "proper operator" is still in evidence now. In July 2010, he denounced Michael Gove for abandoning Labour's multimillion-pound school-building project, calling the Education Secretary "a miserable pipsqueak" across the floor of the House. Does he regret it? "I do, really, yeah. It wasn't good manners but I was so angry," he says.

“In the constituency I now represent . . . you have dilapidated buildings with buckets under roofs and the neighbouring school is brand new. The programme was only half done and it's going to have a really adverse affect on the schooling there for another half-decade. I just think that Gove was outrageous to do it and it was a political act of malice, on his part . . . But I shouldn't have shouted at him."

Another regret relates to his part in the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election of 2004, in which, as campaign manager, he helped Liam Byrne narrowly retain the seat despite the post-Iraq-war antipathy towards the party.

Labour distributed leaflets that featured the line: "Labour is on your side; the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum-seekers." It was gutter politics. "I wouldn't write it again," he says in retrospect. "I wanted to defeat the Lib Dems at all costs."

Finally, I ask him if he regrets describing the former Fox News presenter Glenn Beck as a "useful idiot". This time, there is no remorse in his voice. "I don't regret that. I think he was a useful idiot. He allowed Murdoch to get attention in Washington."

Those who know Watson say that he is good company, and he still organises karaoke nights for MPs - his current party number is "Ruby" by the Kaiser Chiefs - but he says he has "never done it with Ed Miliband", despite reports to the contrary.

Video games are another passion. He enjoys playing Lego Harry Potter with his son and, next month, he will be a judge at the GameCity Festival in Nottingham. Among the prizes that adorn his parliamentary office is one from this magazine: the New Statesman New Media Award 2004. Watson won it for his blog; he was one of the first MPs to keep one.

“I wasn't very good at it," he says. "I didn't really know how to do the blog, but I knew I wanted to be responsive." He says he was ridiculed by journalists at the time, but adds: "It's amazing to think that, back then, so many people looked down their noses at it, and now half the lobby have their own blog."

Twitter, too, is a big part of his online routine, an "important component" in researching the phone-hacking scandal and for distributing information that "the mainstream media were not reporting". He soon discovered that people - he has over 50,000 followers - would send him links to stories from across the world, filling gaps in his knowledge. "The serendipitous nature of hypertext links is just brilliant for a curious mind. I love it."

So, what can we expect next? In November, there is the return of James Murdoch to the select committee. Meanwhile, Watson is working on his own account of the hacking scandal. It's a book, not a screenplay, as some have suggested. If Hackgate: the Movie does eventually get commissioned, the actor Nick Frost has volunteered (using Twitter, naturally) to take the Watson role. Frost, best known for starring with Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, bears more than a passing resemblance to the burly parliamentarian. The MP has invited the actor to the Houses of Parliament "for a pint" but Frost has yet to take him up on the offer.

Watson believes the phone-hacking scandal has a long way to run. The first act was identifying that the illegal phone intercepts happened; the second is "unpicking the cover-up"; and the third, still to play out, is the discovery of covert surveillance, including computer hacking, by journalists. "This piece will probably be worse than the phone-hacking," Watson says. "And more dramatic."

Jon Bernstein is deputy editor of the New Statesman

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter