Tom Watson's 'Dial M For Murdoch' Is Released - HuffPost Meets Him

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TOM WATSON
Tom Watson Launched "Dial M For Murdoch" On Thursday Morning | Rex

Tom Watson, the MP who stands by his claim that James Murdoch behaved like a "mafia boss", had an unusual Thursday morning. For it was him answering the questions for a change, not asking them, as he gave a press conference in central London to launch his new book, "Dial M for Murdoch" - a big tome which is subtitled: "News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain".

Yes that's News Corporation - the parent company, not News International, its British subsidiary - the subtext being that the foul play Rupert and James Murdoch presided over was global, not just confined to the UK. As it happens most of the action is confined to Britain, but both authors and publisher clearly hope the book will have worldwide reach. Certainly there were a lot of foreign reporters at the press conference.

And as news conferences go it was a bit of a strange one, given some of those attending were not reporters but other Members of Parliament. Chris Bryant - another Labour MP fixated by phone hacking - made a couple of interventions (statements more than questions), as did fellow Labour culture committee member Paul Farrelly. A lawyer who represented someone who got hacked turned up and made an intervention. So it was almost like a debate.

When I catch up with Watson after the press conference he tells me he found it "nerve-wracking", because of the subject matter. "Because you're writing about a news organisation, you're extra vigilant about what lies behind the questions," he says. It's not unusual to see Watson on adrenaline - google "miserable little pipsqueak" to get a flavour of how he can be in Parliament.

But there is a tension to him at our meeting which is less common. Perhaps this is because unlike most of Watson's previous missives against the Murdochs, this one does not come under parliamentary privilege, a legal entitlement which hitherto has enabled him to say what he likes without legal comeback.

Our time is limited because lots of people want to interview Watson. That's in part because the timing for the publication of this book could not be better, although the events of the past two days make it difficult to talk about certain things.

This week prosecutors were handed a file from the Metropolitan police on phone hacking and bribes paid to police officers, and there are reports that charges will be brought. On the day of Watson's book launch three people were arrested over improper payments to police officers.

And to cap it off the Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee - on which Watson sits - will publish its long-awaited report on phone hacking soon - probably on the 30th of April.

The long-running saga that's engulfed News International is clearly about to enter a new phase. HuffPost hears that the CMS Committee's report has been delayed partly because human rights barristers have been poring over it, worried about some journalists not getting a fair trial. Because trials are very much expected.

Similarly beady legal eyes have been cast over Watson's book, which is published by Penguin and co-authored with journalist Martin Hickman, who normally writes for the Independent newspaper.

The two men started writing it at the beginning of 2011, when Watson says he was at "a low ebb and worried," because he thought at the time News International were going to get away with their phone hacking, which Watson already believed to have taken place on an industrial scale.

"It looked to us that they'd managed to get the lid back on the scandal. I wasn't quite sure where it was going to go next," says Watson.

Hickman contacted Watson and said the issue had uncovered angles which needed looking at. "It's hard to describe the whole of what had gone on," says Watson, with Hickman adding that by May 2011 it was clear to him there was enough material for the book.

The subsequent events, beginning in late June 2011 and reverberating through British politics and media circles for months, almost don't need reiterating, the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, the revelations that stupendous numbers of people had their voicemails intercepted, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks and, most recently, the takedown of James Murdoch - once among the most powerful people in Britain, now playing little more than a bit-part.

In light of all this other reportage and investigation, is the book even needed? Watson says it's "a much wider exploration" on News Corp than the very specific question the committee is considering - whether Parliament was misled by the Murdochs, Rebekah Brooks and other employees of News International.

Watson's book touches on politics though, a lot. Top of his list of allegations is that members of the CMS committee were the subject of a smear operation by News International, which began in 2009 and which - it's implied - successfully put the committee off recalling the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks to give further evidence. This information, claims Watson, was given to him by Neville Thurlbeck, a former journalist on the News of the World.

Watson is talking in very guarded sentences, but suggests it was "very strange" that gay Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price, who sat on the CMS committee, suddenly decided to leave Parliament, quite early in his political career.

Price is quoted in the book as saying that "a senior Conservative member" of the committee had told him that any attempt to recall Brooks would result in the committee members' private lives being delved into.

Where the book is equally interesting but arguably complicated is when it delves into the corridors of power at News International's headquarters in Wapping, east London. Much of this is already in the public domain - but conveniently catalogued and organised in sequence. The only problem with it is that to a degree the shock value has gone - so often repeated have the allegations been.

What still feels fresh and shocking is the behaviour of the police throughout the phone hacking scandal. Inept, lazy, intimidated, complicit - they appear to have been all of those things.

One new and frankly staggering titbit that Watson and Hickman reveal is how the then Director of Public Prosecutions was lunching with News International executives in 2007, at about the same time as the first hints of the scale of the criminality were coming through.

It's perhaps these nuggets which are the most shocking, demonstrating the significant and even terrifying power News International exerted until very, very recently.

What's next for Watson? He's still on the Culture Committee, despite being deputy chair of the Labour party, something many find incongruous. Surely once their phone hacking report is finished, he'll stand down, right? "I haven't made my mind up about that," Watson claims, adding that there is nothing new in party front-benchers sitting on select committees. It could well be that committee chairman John Whittingdale takes a different view, of course - a few months ago he told HuffPost that Watson should step down.

Watson seems happy. Relishing his joint roles as deputy chair of the Labour party and unofficial phone-hacker antagonist supremo, he insists that he has "a passion for open data" and believes it's only a matter of time before the next avalanche of hacking revelations - this time about emails - appears. It's unfortunate that he finds it difficult to talk much about it, because it's also the subject of a police investigation.

But he believes passionately that the phone hacking fallout "should form part of the debate at the next general election." How so? "We talk about a malign influence of News Corp on public institutions, which collectively failed in their duty to protect families like the Dowlers. That's down to the scale of ownership from News Corp.

"There is a vibrant debate on the future of regulation, but the biggest of all will be on ownership, and the parties will have to spell out in detail where they stand on this . As a Shadow Cabinet member, I am of the view that we have to look at this."

And the book? There's a lot to commend about it. One of the features of the fallout from the phone hacking scandal is how journalists have tended to reduce it to shorthand - of course everyone knows who Les Hinton and Tom Crone are, they think. The reality is that most of the public don't.

The result - a complicated series of claims, counter-claims and denials, can be confusing and myopic. This book will tell those already obsessed with the saga a few new things, but for the casual reader it's a rip-roaring tour through recent British political and journalistic history, and how Rupert Murdoch has frequently sought to influence it.

Dial M For Murdoch is published by Penguin with a RRP of £20.00

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