Tom Watson, the hard-charging Labour M.P. who has been one of Rupert Murdoch’s prime antagonists in the phone-hacking scandal, has found himself in a rare position today—under attack.
Watson was the force behind the headline-grabbing language in the parliamentary report into phone hacking that was published to great fanfare yesterday. The report’s unexpectedly damning condemnation of Murdoch—which stated that the mogul is "not a fit person" to run an international media organization—immediately made headlines around the globe. But it has also sparked criticism that Watson went too far—“hijacking” the report, in the words of one committee member, and in the process letting Murdoch off the hook.
Watson fired back at the criticism—and doubled down on the political overtones that have surrounded the release—in an interview with The Daily Beast today, saying that the report’s Conservative authors had been bent on dissention no matter what. “There was nothing we could have done to stop members of the committee from opposing the report,” he says, adding that he faced similar criticism during the committee’s first report against News Corp. in 2009. “That’s exactly what they said when we did the report in 2009. So it’s no surprise they’ve repeated the line this time around.”
Even before the crisis reached a head this summer with the revelation that Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid hacked the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, Watson had used his seat in Parliament to batter the mogul and his New York–based News Corp. with constant criticism and accusations, doing as much as any lawmaker to bring the scandal to light.
In the process Watson has gone from a behind-the-scenes political operator—he was once known as a taskmaster for former prime minister Gordon Brown—to a high-profile player in the scandal, dubbed by one British newspaper as Rupert Murdoch’s “tormentor-in-chief.” He was promoted this fall to a top position in the Labour party and recently released his own book on the scandal to warm reviews. And he has helped turn the parliamentary Committee on Culture, Media and Sport—once known as a plum posting for scoring tickets to theater and sporting events—into an investigatory heavyweight on the phone-hacking trail.
It was before this same committee that Murdoch and his son James, until recently the head of News Corp.’s U.K. arm, received their infamous grilling on phone-hacking last summer, with the elder Murdoch receiving a shaving-cream pie to the face. Yesterday saw the release of the committee’s much-anticipated report into that summer testimony, and into News Corp.’s handling of the scandal at large.
The “unfit” condemnation of Murdoch was pushed by Watson in a special amendment, and it dominated coverage of the report. But it has also led to a high-profile war of words between Watson and his Conservative opponents, along with charges that dissention between the report’s authors has watered down the otherwise-damaging findings about News Corp. and the Murdochs.
On the day after the report’s publication, the conversation in Britain is focused not on the many problems inside News Corp.—and the report contained many detailed and harshly worded findings on that—but on the partisan split within the committee that the “not fit” language has inspired. All four of its Conservative members are reported to have dissented on that point, and in the process the report became the first into phone hacking that the committee has published without unanimous support.
“Labour completely overplayed their hand,” Louise Mensch, the Tory committee member leading the charge against Watson, tells The Daily Beast. “They could have had a unanimous report. They chose not to. It was a purely partisan report.”
She added that Murdoch “is self-evidently fit to run a major company and is one of the most legendary newspaper men of all time. There is no evidence that he knew about the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World while it was going on.”
Mensch says the language—which seemed targeted to undermine News Corp.’s British television holding, the broadcaster BSkyB—was pushed by Watson just before the report’s publication, splitting the committee and overshadowing the rest of its report. Speaking to the BBC last night, she said the insertion was “hysterical and over the top,” making the entire report “partisan and essentially worthless.”
Watson denies charges that he has used the report as a political football in advance of a hotly contested mayoral race in London and local elections around the country. “I called for two of my former prime ministers to release their private emails to the company,” he says. "The truth is what I’m doing is trying to crack this open for the political establishment. And that’s as dangerous for the Labour Party as it is for the Conservative Party.”
One observer with a long background in media and corporate governance notes that Watson has succeeded in pushing the “fit and proper” narrative into the debate, which could spell trouble for Murdoch down the line. “Getting those headlines yesterday has made the point,” he says. “I think it’s helped to shape the debate.”
But the controversy surrounding the report may have done its part to aid Murdoch and News Corp. all the same. “The perfectly reasonable conclusions in regards to corporate governance that were spread throughout the whole report have been drowned out by the media circus surrounding Tom Watson,” says Claire Enders, a London-based media analyst who follows News Corp. closely.
Enders notes some particularly troublesome findings for News Corp.—James Murdoch’s “astonishing” lack of curiosity about the phone-hacking scandal unfolding under his watch, along with a “wilful ignorance”; the company’s “wilful blindness” in “ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing.” It also laid ultimate blame for the problem at Rupert Murdoch’s feet and accused three of his former officials—former News of the World editor Colin Myler, former News International senior lawyer Tom Crone, and Les Hinton, the former publisher of the Dow Jones who is known to be especially close to Murdoch—of being complicit in covering up the scandal.
But Enders says the disputed language and ensuing dissent has meant that instead of a hard-hitting verdict on the problems within the Murdoch empire, the report “has become something of a political report, and its power fundamentally undermined.”
“The report alleged not only serious wrongdoing, but also a cover-up,” Enders adds. “That is a very serious matter, and I’m afraid that’s gotten lost.”