Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

‘It takes courage to take a stand. After all, Rupert Murdoch never forgets’

April 21, 2012 @ 6:00 am

Watson makes clear his gratitude to the present Labour leader: “Ed Balls – and
I like Ed, he’s a friend of mine – wouldn’t have stood up at PMQs and called
for Rebekah Brooks’ resignation and that the BSkyB bid should fail. Out of
the four candidates for the [Labour] leadership, Ed [Miliband] was the only
one who would have made that call.”

Has his principled stand earned Ed Miliband the hostility of the Murdoch
press? “I have it on very good authority that Tom Newton Dunn [The
Sun’s
political editor] said 'We never forget.’ And they don’t.”
Watson claims the fate of Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who dared question
Brooks about payments to the police proves this: within months of his attack
on Brooks, The News of the World had published a photo of Bryant in
his underpants, an image found on a gay dating website.

“It took courage to take a stand. Sienna Miller was the bravest because she
was the first. In her profession, the film industry, it was really
dangerous. She could have been destroyed. Remember, she didn’t know, at the
time, how it would end. I’ve never met her, but I admire what she did.”

Watson praises, too, Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan for braving the witness
stand; but it is the trauma suffered by ordinary people that incenses him.
“I didn’t meet Millie Dowler’s family or the McCanns. But early on, I felt a
duty and responsibility towards those people who didn’t have a voice. I met
with one woman who had been the victim of a vicious sexual crime. She
discovered that her phone, her partner’s phone and her parents’ phone had
been hacked [by NOTW journalists]. I couldn’t believe that anyone
could do that, after all they’d been through. Once you have met people like
that, there’s no going back.”

This self-styled champion of ordinary people is tremendously class-conscious.
His book reveals a deep-seated “them and us” mentality: much is made of
David Cameron’s privileged background, and of his and Osborne’s membership
of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. Watson even seems to regard Jeremy Hunt’s
personal fortune as automatically disqualifying the Culture Secretary from
judging the BSkyB bid; he says he believed Vince Cable, the Lib Dem who “was
not in Murdoch’s social circuit”, should have judged the bid as he would
have reached “an objective conclusion on the bid.”

Watson defends his position on Hunt: “He does come out of it quite badly… I
warned him, I wanted him to know this was coming, he must have known it was
coming, but he was in denial… He’s obviously very ambitious within the
Conservative Party, but it’s damaged his reputation. He did have a
responsibility to put it right… but it was only at the 11th hour, when he
was dragged to the chamber, that he finally acted.”

George Osborne doesn’t fare much better. Watson attributes Andy Coulson’s
clout with Cameron and Osborne to his “tabloid touch” which the two Old
Etonians badly needed; but also to the spectacular damage limitation
exercise he says Coulson oversaw when Osborne was the subject of a lurid
tabloid story. I ask Watson if I’m right in thinking his book is hinting
that Osborne repaid his debt of gratitude to News International, and in turn
BSkyB, when he came into No. 11 by freezing the BBC’s licence fee and
cutting their budget by 16 per cent. “Yes, that is what I was hinting,” he
says with a laugh.

As for David Cameron’s relationship with Coulson: “I still don’t think we know
the full picture… [about] what due diligence was done and what internal
discussions were conducted about the appointment. It might come out, or it
might not.”

One revelation, however, that his book does not include is the fact that
Watson was embroiled in The Daily Telegraph’s MP’s
expenses scandal. He had his expenses cut after buying a set of dining room
chairs that exceeded the limit set by the fees office. He was also forced to
defend the appearance of a receipt for “a pizza wheel” from Marks and
Spencers on a receipt he submitted, saying it was a free gift in return for
his £150 spending spree at the store. He doesn’t apologise for this, though
he ruefully acknowledges that “the MPs’ expenses were in the public interest
and it was legitimate [for The Daily Telegraph] to pay for the
information.”

Watson suspects that henceforth “the issue of what is public interest, how it
is applied and who should apply it, will have to be clarified in law.
Journalists themselves will probably prefer the protection of some kind of
methodology when it comes to applying the public interest test… It has to be
the editor who makes the decision.” But he doesn’t want an over-reaction,
whereby privacy is protected at the expense of a free press. Indeed, he
leaves me, hinting at a somewhat unlikely crusade: “I now have a
responsibility to stand up for journalism.”

Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson (Allen Lane, RRP £20) is available
from Telegraph Books at £18 + £1.25 pp. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit
books.telegraph.co.uk

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