Express & Star

Tom Watson reveals how the phone hacking scandal affected him

Sandwell MP Tom Watson reveals how the phone hacking scandal has affected him.


Sandwell MP Tom Watson reveals how the phone hacking scandal has affected him.

You can't move in Westminster for the sound of MPs calling for a change to metal theft laws.

I draw a quiet smile of satisfaction when I hear them. Local business people convinced me to speak out on this issue three years ago.

They were getting hammered by the growing crime. Something had to be done. At the time no one was listening.

Meticulous use of the freedom of information requests built the case that Britain had a problem, thousands of commuter hours lost, thousands of school buildings without roofs, dozens of war memorials and even Henry Moore statues were getting smelted. Ministers now promise new legislation. It's been the same with the hacking scandal.

Back in the summer of 2009, every single MP I know thought the campaign was bordering on the insane. No one wanted to know. It was simply career suicide to challenge the powerful people that ran News International.

The chief reporter of News of the World claimed that senior executives tried to smear me as "being mad". They nearly got their wish. There were points where I thought I was cracking up. Not that it mattered much back then.

At the time, I was seriously considering quitting politics. I'd already stood down as a minister because of the intolerable pressure on my family, caused by the aftermath of an untrue story written in the Mail on Sunday and repeated in most daily newspapers.

The Sun newspaper prosecuted a vicious campaign for me to be sacked. Their campaign lasted a week.

The scars still haven't healed. It is a source of great pride that my own paper – the Express & Star – scrutinised the facts and decided not to follow the conventional wisdom of the London media that week.

Peter Rhodes, often the scourge of the political classes, wrote a supportive column. This paper backed me. The Sun had to apologise in the High Court.

Since the resignation of executives at News International, the London part of the job has changed dramatically. I get invited to a lot of media events.

Frankly, they're a little tedious. The situation is flooded with an irony that is almost impossible to swim out of.

In fighting a campaign to expose the essential vacuity and unpalatable behaviour of large chunks of the London based media, I have unwittingly become someone of passing interest to the London based media.

I know where that goes - familiarity breeds contempt. No greater example of this was an award ceremony I recently attended as a shortlisted candidate for the 'maverick of the year' award at London's trendy Groucho Club.

It was full of vaguely famous people. A kindly man called John McKay from the Daily Mail started asking me if I'd had a PR makeover.

Lightbulbs started to flash when I was introduced to someone called Molly Crabtree, who Google later told me was a New York artist who made her name illustrating a pornographic art journal.

I also met the legendary graphic novelist, Warren Ellis. This is a world that is alien to me. These events have a transitory allure but are not regular features in my diary.

My main evening entertainment remains karaoke and cinema. And the other thing I've learned - ignore political commentators. They are almost universally always behind the curve of public opinion and out of touch.

Their adherence to the status quo and fear of the Murdoch machine ensured they were the glue that held a defective political system in place.

If they had been listened to two years ago, the lid would have been kept on the biggest media scandal in post war history.

West Bromwich remains my barometer of public opinion, not the salons of London. It was great to chat to people after the Remembrance Sunday parade in Dartmouth park.

Many wished me luck and thanked me for telling it straight. I didn't get a single complaint for using tough language on the powerful executives that attended our committee.

These so called commentators form the chattering classes that don't matter. There's another thing the scandal has taught me. Many distinguished writers and editors have skins as thin as rice paper.

Robust challenge is often misinterpreted as savage criticism. On Monday, the editor of the Times condemned me for "having an agenda."

I'm not sure what qualifications are required to be editor of the Times but the boy hit the nail on the head with that comment.

The agenda is to pursue the truth about the scale of illegality that took place at News International and, as the Leveson enqiry is reveaing, other national newspapers.

Allegations that journalists were involved in various forms of illegality have now been made against all four Murdoch papers, The Times and Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World.

It was disingenuous of the editor of the Times not to mention the paper's own, albeit tiny, problem with hacking.

Just because he is a powerful editor does not preclude him from being accountable for those who are appointed to write for his paper.

Other papers have started to fire salvos. A columnist and 'victim' wrote an article in the Telegraph stating she didn't care she was a target of the phone hackers.

Beverley Turner found my line of questioning "nauseating." The next day a whistle-blower told me her husband was the target for covert surveillance by one of the many private investigators used by News of the World.

A columnist for the Times even said on Twitter that he would like to kill me for being fat. Now that's what I call an agenda!

It was Mark Twain who said "never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel." I'm going to ignore Twain's advice for a few more months.

But I'll still also be campaigning to make sure the barrel that holds the ink is made in the Midlands and not smelted down by dodgy scrap metal dealers for export to China. West Bromwich comes first.

Read the full story in today's Express & Star

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