07.18.11

Murdoch’s Nemesis

A little-known politician will grill Rupert and his son at a hearing on the phone-hacking scandal in the British Parliament today. Mike Giglio on Tom Watson, ‘tormenter in chief.’

One evening last week, Tom Watson was sitting in his office in Parliament when his assistant burst into the room. News International, she announced, had agreed to appear before the Labour M.P.’s committee hearing the following Tuesday. Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and Rebekah Brooks—the three people at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal tearing apart the media giant—were all going to show. A look of surprise washed across Watson’s tired face.

“F--k me,” he said. “I’ve got Rupert Murdoch in front of me in a week.”

Just days before, News of the World, News International’s flagship tabloid, had ceased to exist, its office in the company’s gated complex near the Tower of London sealed off as a crime scene. That morning, Britain’s top cops had been grilled in Parliament over their failure to properly investigate the news conglomerate, and suspicions of corruption and cover-up were running high. It was easy to forget that for the last two years, Watson had appeared to many as a lonely and possibly unhinged figure as he railed against the apparent lawlessness of the Murdoch empire. While British politicians and media ignored the issue, Watson hammered away at it in speeches and parliamentary sessions, in the process becoming its public face—which was not necessarily a good image to have.

Some friends, Watson admitted, “probably said, ‘This is getting a bit obsessive.‘”

Stocky and bespectacled, Watson doesn’t cut the figure of crusading scourge. But with the News International executives heading to his committee room, the M.P. has become one of the scandal’s most lauded heroes. On Sunday, the British newspaper The Guardian called him Rupert Murdoch’s “tormenter in chief.”

“He’s a very unlikely poster boy in the entire episode,” said Daily Mirror reporter Kevin Maguire, a longtime Watson observer. “We always joke: who would play him in the movies? Heroes tend to be thin and fit, and Tom is neither.”

In his office, with his iPhone buzzing nonstop, Watson was still trying to wrap his mind around it all and catch his breath. “What I’m really thinking now is, I need to have an early night and go to sleep,” he said.

Watson comes from a family steeped in trade unions from a hardscrabble industrial town in the heart of England’s “black country.” In the past the region was covered by layers of soot; now it’s better known for high unemployment. That kind of background tends to breed similarly gritty politicians, trained to land a sharp elbow when required. Watson got his start handing out fliers in front of factories and moved up through the union and political ranks with what he described as a “take no prisoners” approach.

“He had a reputation for being a bruiser. Other M.P.s who had worked with him in the trade-union movement said he did things then that would have easily ended people's careers,” said Ian Kirby, who was the political editor at News of the World until its recent demise, and covered Watson for years.

He’s 'running a sort of Viet Cong guerrilla war from the back benches,' says blogger Paul Staines.

Watson didn’t leave the brass-knuckle tactics behind when he entered Parliament in 2001. Five years ago, he was the key player of the “curry house” coup against Tony Blair. Believing that Blair, after nearly a decade in office, had worn out his welcome, and hoping to force him to set a departure date, Watson and 14 other members of Blair’s government signed a letter calling for him to step down, and followed with a wave of resignations.

It was later revealed that, on the day before the letter reached Downing Street, Watson had visited the home of Gordon Brown, Blair’s chancellor of the Exchequer and his chief rival for leadership of the Labour Party. To this day, Watson protests that he was simply delivering a gift for Brown’s child, though his opponents find that hard to believe. “I knew then that he was completely ruthless,” Kirby said. “It was all about getting the job done. And obviously it’s been the same in the hacking debate.”

Within a year, a severely weakened Blair was out of office, replaced by Brown, and Watson assumed a role as a minister and close adviser who was believed by his opponents to be one of Brown’s disciplinarians. Paul Staines, better known as Guido Fawkes, the conservative blogger who has done battle with Watson in the past, said he acted as Brown’s “consigliere.”

But by bucking Blair, Watson had made a powerful enemy: Brooks, the former chair of News International who has become a lightning rod for the phone-hacking affair. Brooks had deep relationships with many of Britain’s powerful, including current Prime Minister David Cameron, but few were as dear to her as Blair.

After Blair’s 2007 resignation, Watson said, he was approached by a News International editor with an ominous warning: “Rebekah will never forgive you for what you did to her Tony. She will pursue you for the rest of your life.”

(The editor in question, George Pascoe-Watson, told The New York Times last year that he has no recollection of the conversation.)

In April 2009, Watson found himself square in News International's crosshairs. Brown’s press secretary was accused of designing a vicious smear campaign against Labour opponents and was forced to resign. Though no evidence was found, a flurry of news coverage linked Watson to the scandal, most notably in The Sun, News International’s daily tabloid, which pressed the story hard. (Watson later sued successfully for libel.)

Watson recalled being out for breakfast with his wife and children while people at the tables around him read copies of The Sun, his face staring out from the front page. It was even worse back at home. “Neighbors caught people going through our bins, their bins,” he said. “One found two guys in our garage. The phone just constantly rings. It’s totally insane. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to cracking up.”

Watson said the experience drove him to seek a lower-profile role in Parliament. He joined the committee on culture, media, and sport, hoping a confab known for scoring its members free tickets to concerts and sporting events would keep him far from the tabloid headlines. “I think I’m going to talk about the future of modern art,” he said.

But his very first hearing happened to be about phone hacking and News International. He insisted this was a coincidence, though as Siôn Simon, a close friend and former Labour M.P., noted, “It is also the case that he had unfinished business with Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch, and a desire to right wrongs.” Whatever Watson's thoughts on joining the committee, it soon became clear to him that he’d remain pitted against the Murdoch empire; Tom Crone, the News International lawyer, started the hearing by trying to get him removed from the committee, citing his pending libel suit. “If I didn’t understand before, I had no doubt at that point that they would not stop,” Watson said.

Alastair Campbell, the former communications director for Blair and no friend to Watson, said Watson thrived in the role of Murdoch antagonist. “He got the bit between the teeth with Rebekah Brooks when she had a go at him and realized he had nothing to lose.”

When Brown was forced from office last May, Watson moved to the opposition. Observers note that this is where he shines—out of the spotlight and free to operate as he sees fit. “He’s been quite shrewd in not taking a front-bench job, and instead running a sort of Viet Cong guerrilla war from the back benches,” said Staines. “They’ve done their homework, and they’ve been successful.”

While the campaign against News International let Watson play to his strengths, it also afforded him the chance for some payback—and the combination has made him a dangerous opponent.

“For him it was all about getting Rebekah back for what she did to him at The Sun,” Kirby, the former News of the World political editor, said. “After 2010, he wasn’t connected to the prime minister anymore. You could get to Cameron by destroying Andy Coulson [the former News of the World editor and Cameron spokesman]. You could damage the Conservatives by damaging News International. It was almost like at each stage the story grew, his ambition became greater.”

In his office, after the surprise of learning that Murdoch would testify wore off, Watson narrowed his eyes. When asked what was going through his mind, he paused for a moment. “This is the moment I’m going to get Rupert Murdoch to apologize to the people his journalists have wronged,” he said.