The Labour MP has either bravely followed his beliefs about Rupert Murdoch to their conclusion or committed a tactical error
The Labour MP Tom Watson gets a pasting in some of the newspapers for pushing his passionately held convictions about Rupert Murdoch’s personal culpability to the limit with a partisan vote over the Commons culture committee’s report on the phone-hacking scandal. Was he right – or did he commit a tactical error?
Round one certainly went to the West Bromwich MP. His six-to-four vote majority for the “not a fit person” verdict grabbed headlines around the world, drowning out the Tory insistence that what Murdoch and his son James knew, didn’t know or should have known about the hacking and the cover-up had not been decisively proved. Watson must have calculated as much.
It is worth noting here that the decision of Torbay’s Lib Dem MP, Adrian Sanders, to vote with the committee’s five Labour MPs against his Tory partners may be the most significant breach in coalition solidarity so far. As the Guardian’s editorial points out, if Ed Miliband could engineer a similar vote in the entire Commons calling for Murdoch to lose his BSkyB licence, that would put David Cameron in a bigger bind over his former chums.
That scenario, too, is open to objection. So is the suggestion that named executives may have to apologise in person for misleading parliament. The last time a newspaperman was required to grovel at the bar of the Commons, for suggesting MPs were getting special petrol coupons during the Suez crisis of 1956-7, the culprit – the late John Junor – acquitted himself so well that the exercise has never since been repeated.
More problematical in the here and now is the widespread assumption, echoed in Manhattan-savvy Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff’s Guardian article that the US-based News Corp will sell its troublesome UK newspapers the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun as soon as possible, while hanging on to its lucrative and controlling interest in BSkyB, if it can.
Leveson, the police, the media regulator Ofcom, or aggressive prosecutors in New York: any of them could deliver the coup de grâce. It’s early days, but Murdoch has made many enemies. Was it Balzac who said, ” Behind every great fortune lies a great crime”? And who said: “All great men are bad men”? Someone may one day write an opera about this hubristic drama. Suggestions for a title, please.
Meanwhile, in our own little backyard, will Britain’s diverse national newspaper market – which Murdoch senior praised repeatedly in evidence to the Leveson inquiry last week – survive the withdrawal of such an ardently pro-newspaper tycoon with such deep pockets? Murdoch’s love of newspapers was one of the undeniably sincere aspects of last week’s performance.
The prospect of more ownership by oligarchs, acquired with money stolen from the Russian people, is not a cheering one in such a weakened industry. Gulf Arab money? Not cheering either, though it permeates so many aspects of our lives, from football to race horsing via Harrods and assorted banks, that we barely notice; we should.
Partisan or no, aspects of the report overwhelmingly agreed in the culture committee – notably the cover-up by three named executives at the News of the World (judgment on others was withheld because they could face criminal charges) – are damning enough, as the Guardian examines further. Select committee chairmen try to secure unanimous reports, but John Whittingdale is not the first to fail.
With feelings running so high, it is easy to see why. But the Murdoch-owned Times (whose own reporting of the scandal has belatedly become quite robust, unlike the Sun’s) makes a valid point in an editorial in which it warns that the affair offers “a useful piggyback” for both Murdoch’s political enemies and his commercial rivals.
The Daily Mail has been broadly hostile to the Guardian-led campaign to expose illegal activities at News International. But even it argues that “terrible wrongdoings” at the NoW should be held to account, and admits that it joined the cross-media commercial alliance to block the BSkyB bid. Why? Because it fears monopolistic ambitions pursued using mutually supportive cross-subscription between TV and newspapers, known as “bundling”.
Yet the Mail, improbably, goes on to claim that if Labour succeeds in driving Murdoch out of business, “the public would be left with a barren media world dominated by the state-subsidised BBC and the Guardian.” I’m tempted to say: “I wish.” But I wouldn’t want that to happen either – and it won’t. As usual, the Mail editorial struggles to square all aspects of its angry, slightly paranoid worldview.
What, then, of Watson? By dividing the committee, has he weakened the report’s impact, and helped to drive Murdoch investment money out of Britain with no guarantee of anything better for Lord Justice Leveson to regulate in the future? Was he righteously out of control or OTT, as the sketchwriting pack (and Louise Mensch MP) suggest? Or has he simply had the courage to see his convictions through? On balance, I incline to the latter.
No one watching the many faces of Rupert on display in court 73 last week could do other than marvel at his variety: shrewd, powerful, funny, complacent and contrite – all of them, at times – and repeatedly dishonest at other moments. But who was he deceiving, himself or the rest of us, I kept asking myself. As much the former as the latter. Cynicism and sentimentality make for a heady mixture: very tabloid, very Rupert. It is the Sun that this Oxford-educated public schoolboy loves best. God help him, and Oxford.
In a memo to staff today, RM calls on them to reflect on past mistakes – presumably theirs, not his. But his PR machine also attacks the report. As he told Leveson, he didn’t even read Max Mosley’s letter of complaint after he won his privacy case against the NoW. Wow! How scared or stupid his minions must have been, not to show him.
As for Watson, a former acolyte of Gordon Brown who helped to topple Tony Blair as Labour leader, I have always liked and respected him more than I do his old boss. What’s more, I trust him. When he assured me that he and Brown had not plotted against Blair but watched Postman Pat videos with their young children at a crucial stage of the doomed 2005-7 handover, I took his word for it and reported the claim – to the mockery and fury of some colleagues.
In taking on the Murdochs, as he took on Blair – he resigned as a junior minister – and took on Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes and once threatened Watson with a libel action, Watson showed personal courage. By fair means and foul, Fleet Street’s attack dogs come after such people and go through their bins at night; they did his.
Living anxiously like this, as the Watson family has done, must have contributed to the breakup of the MP’s marriage. That’s quite a price to pay – higher than the octogenarian media mogul has paid, at least so far. True, he has closed the News of the World. But one of last week’s revelations was that he wished he had divorced the paper years ago.