British MP Tom Watson lifts the lid on Leveson inquiry
Deputy chair of the British Labour Party, Tom Watson, speaks to Lateline about the Leveson inquiry’s report, set to be released at the end of the month.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: One of the members of that committee is the deputy chair of the British Labour Party, Tom Watson, who is the co-author of a new book, Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain. I spoke to him a short time ago from London.
Tom Watson, welcome to Lateline.
TOM WATSON, BRITISH LABOUR MP: Good evening.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, you managed to interview Neville Thurlbeck for your book, someone who was in fact the chief reporter at the News of the World, and someone who hasn’t done too many interviews of course. Now he told you that private investigators were employed to dig up dirt, if you like, on yourself and other members of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee that was investigating News Corporation, News International. Did that compromise the committee in any way?
TOM WATSON: Well, look, what we try and do with the book is join the dots. And what Neville Thurlbeck told us was an important corner piece. He said the edict came down from the editor to find out everything you can on members of the committee. He said they put six people on it for 10 days, all took two MPs each. And they were even told to find out which ones were gay, which ones were having affairs, which is sort of a staggering claim. But on top of that, we also now know that they’d hired a private investigator who put me under covert surveillance. I couldn’t find out whether any other committee member had had that level of intrusion.
But we’ve also got a quote from a political opponent of mine who was a very thorough investigator on the committee, stood down at the last election, a man called Adam Price, who claims that he was told by a senior member of the committee that the company would exact retribution if our inquiry went too deep. So I think it’s now very clear that they executed a strategy to bully and intimidate the committee, and if that failed, then they wanted to smear members of the committee to undermine their credibility.
It goes on … well, Thurlbeck then went on to say even his news editor realised that this was a horrible thing to do. And there appears to be a sort of … they decided to reject that strategy after 10 days. But there was certainly the intent there. And I can tell you from personal experience, it was a very intimidating time during 2009, particularly August 2009, when we were beginning to be more bold with our questioning and to ask for more detail. And going into a level of depth that the company were irritated by. And then of course we began to invite the chief executive of the company, Rebekah Brooks, who rejected our invitation on three occasions, at one point saying it was pointless that she turned up.
EMMA ALBERICI: And I understand that the committee actually did not … decided in the end not to compel her to attend.
TOM WATSON: Well, then in the end … and the one thing I can’t say, the internal discussions of the committee have to remain confidential, but the committee then decided not to invite Rebekah Brooks, which was probably a shock to everyone because certainly to the outside world a number of members of the committee had said they thought it was a good idea. And I think it is very clear now that the individual fears that committee members felt led to them … basically losing the will to do that.
And obviously, with hindsight now, now knowing what went on in the company, it would have been absolutely appropriate back then for us to have the chief executive of the company, most senior person in the United Kingdom, come and answer for the policy they were pursuing. And we ducked that, and frankly that’s a failure of Parliament.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, one of the most disturbing elements of the News of the World scandal is what it told us about the relationship between journalists and police in Britain. In fact, your book tells us that the director of public prosecutions was socialising with executives from News International even as the scale of criminality was revealing itself.
TOM WATSON: Yes, and that’s what’s very worrying. We used very detailed Freedom of Information requests to build up a kind of diary of social engagements for key executives at the company and who they were meeting in the police. I have to say obviously it is not illegal for people to go to dinner and to socialise and take hospitality off members of the media organisations, but it was the scale and the timing and the frequency of contact that I thought was shocking.
And there was a particular moment where the then director of public prosecutions, Lord McDonald, had been invited as a guest of Les Hinton, former chief executive of the company in 2006, to attend the editors’ conference. And then he was regularly invited to events and quite small gathering events with Rupert Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks over a number of years. And it just struck me that that was inappropriate, and people don’t know about it and we thought it warranted exposure in the book.
EMMA ALBERICI: And what others might also deem inappropriate, Andy Hayman, who was one of the policemen in the early days of the phone hacking revelations back in 2006, 2007, saying there were only “a few cases”. We know there might be something in the order of thousands, 6,000 or thereabouts. Now he said there were just a very few cases. He then left the police force and went on to become a columnist for The Times newspaper.
TOM WATSON: Yes, the curious thing about Andy Hayman – and again I have to say there’s no suggestion of any illegal activity – but at a critical point in the investigation in 2006 Andy Hayman, we discovered, was a guest for a dinner with News International people at the Solo House private members’ club in central London, an exclusive club. It’s not a cheap place to eat or drink – I have been there myself – and the level of contact he had is particularly worrying, not least because shortly afterwards he retired early from the Metropolitan Police and became a highly paid columnist on The Times newspaper. And then when Parliament published its report in 2010, he wrote a column saying there was no …. that basically undermining Parliament’s conclusion and defending the original inquiry, the 100 per cent. So, I think he has answers to … questions to answer about his behaviour.
EMMA ALBERICI: Are you personally frustrated that after so many arrests around 30 or so, that no one has yet been charged and no one is yet on trial, despite the fact that some of these allegations relate to activity that dates back more than a decade?
TOM WATSON: I’m not because I think what is going on … I mean, we need to let the course of justice play out now. But I think the head of the inquiry, Sue Akers, is a very accomplished police leader, and has conducted a thorough investigation and will leave no stone unturned. And the reason it’s taken so long is it’s only in recent months the company have begun to co-operate more fully, and they’ve given an avalanche of data to the Met Police to sift through. And I just think it takes time. But I’m sure that we’re not far away from her bit of the inquiry finishing and the crown prosecution services role will take over. They were handed some files a couple of days ago that they’re now reviewing, and I think well be hearing more from them in months to come.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, News Corporation was a “toxic institution”, you say that “operated like a shadow state in British society”. You’ve previously likened James Murdoch to a mafia boss. Now, taking on the Murdochs used to be the path of professional suicide. What is it that drives to you continue what some might describe, and have done, as a crusade?
TOM WATSON: Yes, and I don’t see it in that way. You know, fate intervened. I went on to the DCMS committee to have a quieter life before the phone hacking scandal broke, and then ended up investigating the company that had libelled me previously when I was a minister. But what happened to me … I met the victim of a very serious sexual crime who told me that she was on the Mulcaire target list, and not just her but her partner and parents.
EMMA ALBERICI: Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator, of course.
TOM WATSON: He was the private investigator who hacked the phone and went to jail in 2006. And when I began to meet the victims, I felt a duty and a obligation to finish the inquiry off for their sake. They didn’t have a voice and they had not been listened to for many years. And politicians were elected to do precisely that, to be their voice. And that’s what I hoped I ended up doing. But it was very, very tough back in 2009. I can laugh about it now, but it was a very, very unpleasant year to be an MP investigating News International back then.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, it is not only the surveillance of MPs who were on the committee, as we’ve discussed. We also know lawyers acting for phone hacking claimants had private investigators following them and their families and producing dossiers. All of that must have cost thousands of pounds at least. Then there will be the $20-million odd dollars spent on settlements with victims. Does you strike it as odd that shareholders of News Corporation, the parent company, haven’t been more vocal against Rupert Murdoch and his children who are still running the company?
TOM WATSON: Well, I think it is remarkable that the company have been so slow to respond at all points. The only way they’ve acted is when they’ve been forced to do it by public exposure. And of course, shareholders are a little bit behind the eight ball on this. Part of the difficulty is the way the shares are arranged. The Murdochs own 12 or 13 per cent of the company, but even this week by a change of rules, have now controlled 42, 43 per cent of the voting shares. And actually, I think if the company were to rearrange its shares such that the number of votes responds … equates to the number of shares you own, the financial institutions that invest in the company would very quickly clean out the wrongdoing and put new systems of corporate governance and accountability in that most modern companies expect these days.
EMMA ALBERICI: Tom Watson, thank you very much for your time this evening.
TOM WATSON: Thank you.
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