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‘If it wasn’t for Ed Miliband, we would never have uncovered the phone hacking scandal’

Andrew Williams meets Labour Shadow Cabinet minister and News International tormentor-in-chief, Tom Watson

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Depending on who you believe, I am sharing a packet of peanuts with both “a fundamentalist zealot who denounces any deviation from socialism” (The Sun) and “the man who almost singlehandedly brought down the world’s most powerful media mogul” (The Guardian). Sitting before me, though, is one man; loathed by those members of the tabloid press who believe they are victims of a witch hunt for which he is primarily responsible, loved by the people who see his attempts to change the culture of British media as a noble crusade.

Tom Watson has had a quite incredible political career. Elected as the MP for West Bromwich East in 2001, Watson went on to hold a variety of ministerial positions in Tony Blair’s government. When, in September 2006, he decided that Blair’s time as Prime Minister was up, he told him so in a stark letter of resignation. Blair responded by branding his critic “disloyal, discourteous and wrong”, but was gone within a year.

Having returned to government under Gordon Brown, Watson’s life changed in the spring of 2009 when he was implicated in a scandal involving the beleaguered Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Damian McBride. “The Sun put me on the front page and said that I’d been in receipt of emails and that I could have stopped it and that I was complicit”, he explains. And so it began.

The wrongful accusation precipitated “a week-long campaign run by The Sun to try and kick me out. It was so painful that I thought, this just isn’t worth it. The quality of life scales tipped the other way, so I told Gordon Brown that I wanted to stand down in the reshuffle… I wanted to go to the backbenches.” The decision would radically alter the trajectory of both his life and career, as Watson’s potent interest in digital media led him to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. “I’d actually gone on the Committee to have a quieter life, believe or not – and then the scandal broke”.

He speaks, of course, of phone hacking, the scandal with which he would become synonymous. By the time Watson joined the Committee, former News of the World Royal Editor Clive Goodman had already gone to prison, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, for hacking the phones of members of the royal family. We were, however, assured that these were ‘rogue reporters’, an anomalous pair who had gone criminally off-piste in search of a scoop. Watson was unconvinced.

“On day one, the first evidence session, we had the editor and solicitor of the News of the World, and they were so defensive, their body language was so shifty that I thought, there’s more to this than meets the eye. They were so aggressive…”

What followed is well documented. A culture of phone hacking more pervasive then anyone could ever have imagined began to unravel as News International first reached out of court settlements with eight celebrities, including actress Sienna Miller and football pundit Andy Gray, for breaches of their privacy. It then emerged that News of the World staff may have hacked the phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Cue public and press outrage. Slowly but surely concrete evidence emerged of scores of instances of hacking, tampering and espionage, the details unrelentingly seedy and increasingly explosive. Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of The Sun, was arrested and is awaiting trial for six counts of conspiracy to intercept communications; the News of the World, the highest-selling English language newspaper in the world, closed after 168 years.

It is for all of these reasons that Tom Watson weighed in at number 36 in the 2012 MediaGuardian 100 – The Guardian’s annual guide to most powerful people in the media – ahead of the likes of Ian Hislop, Jeremy Paxman and, ironically, James Murdoch. Were it not for Watson’s inexorable determination to uncover the full story behind phone hacking, it might well never have been exposed. “It’s been a long, hard slog, a lot of hours and late nights”, he admits.

The impact of his efforts to uncover phone hacking went far beyond his burning the candle at both ends. In taking the decision to go to war with the Murdoch empire, there would be severe consequences for his personal life. The Fake Sheikh, Mazher Mahmood, commissioned a covert surveillance team to follow Watson around for the News of the World. He admits that it was a frightening period. “I kind of laugh about it now because it’s in the past but how preposterous is it that you would be followed around by a private investigator commissioned by a newspaper? You never think it’s going to happen to you.”

“In the phone hacking enquiry what we were beginning to uncover – and there was a small team of us working on it – was links to the criminal underworld, some very shady and dangerous people, and nobody was listening. The police weren’t listening. So in the darker moments I thought, what are these guys capable of doing, how far will they take it?”

Nonetheless, Watson harbours no regrets about taking on one of the world’s most powerful corporate organisations. “Criminality at News International was endemic”, he says unequivocally. “I don’t want to name individual people but clearly they’ve admitted it. The culture was rotten and they were at it for many, many years.”

I try to turn our conversation away from phone hacking. It’s Friday night and there is a reason why we are meeting at The New Oxford, a quaint and rather charming pub just a stone’s throw from Salford Cathedral. In the next hour, Watson will kick off his first ever DJ set, and a growing crowd of Labour Party activists are obviously excited at the prospect; our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by people querying the start time. “It’s like your Dad doing a wedding disco isn’t it! But I’ve got some good stuff in there”, he protests.

More importantly, we meet on the eve of a crucial Labour Party Conference in neighbouring Manchester. The Coalition Government is hugely unpopular but, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Labour have gained little traction with the electorate thus far; I put it to Watson that a YouGov poll today found that only 30% of Labour Party members believe that the party is led by people of real ability.

“Well, that shows that you shouldn’t believe everything you see in opinion polls because we do have people of real ability. I think the challenge for Labour is that, frankly… it’s not normal to sketch out your programme so early on. But I think we’re in such a mess with the Coalition that people really are casting around for alternatives now, and we’ve got this opportunity to begin that a bit earlier in the electoral cycle.”

Watson is in absolutely no doubt that Ed Miliband is the right man to set Labour’s programme for government in motion. He is keen to praise the younger Miliband for “speaking truth to power and not being afraid to speak out… that’s why I personally feel that I’ve got a debt of loyalty to Ed. Because I was involved in all of the Murdoch stuff. A lot of people identify me with that campaign, but what they don’t know, or really recognise, is that it was only really cracked open when Ed Miliband got up at Prime Minister’s Questions and made it an issue central to the political debate of the day.”

It’s a startling assertion. Is he suggesting that, without Ed Miliband, the phone hacking scandal would never have been broken? “Yes, yes”, he replies instantaneously. “I think that Leveson is a direct result of him getting up and calling for Rebekah Brooks to be sacked, and for the BskyB bid to be shelved, and I think that changed the politics of the whole campaign. In so doing he also severed a twenty year relationship with Murdoch and News International. That was a very brave thing for him to do and I’m very proud of him for doing it as well.”

Brave, perhaps, but from a political perspective it might be a decision that comes back to haunt him. As things stand, The Sun are unlikely to back Labour at the next election, but Watson dismisses the suggestion that this will be a factor in the party’s political positioning. “I think that if we try second guess The Sun, or try to gauge them, or try to ingratiate ourselves with The Sun, or make policy on the basis of what a Sun editorial might say, therein are the seeds of destruction and misery. What we’ve got to do is carve out our own programme and if The Sun like it, fine.”

As for the Leveson Inquiry, he can’t quite bring himself to say that he is optimistic. The extent to which Leveson will change things for the better will, Watson says, ultimately come down to the three party leaders. “The mood music has changed in the last month with David Cameron… I think it would be the greatest tragedy of his premiership if he was not strong enough to do the right thing.”

“It’s not beyond the wit of man for us to come up with a system that stops tabloid journalists thinking it’s right that you can hack a phone – and I don’t see much repentance. I mean if you look at Kelvin Mackenzie, he basically embodies a ‘fuck you’ spirit, and it’s unacceptable. As editor of The Sun newspaper, you’re one of the most powerful people in the land, so you’ve got to have some responsibility. So, you know, we’ll see what comes out of Leveson, but I hope that David Cameron doesn’t cower.”

As you might expect, Watson delivers a damning assessment of the performance of Cameron and Co. just over two years into their premiership. “I thought their economic plans were illiterate, and so I thought they would have difficulty. What I didn’t predict was how incompetent they would be across a range of policy areas. It’s not just because they’ve got the wrong ideology – they’re actually incompetent at enacting them. I was very surprised that their programme ran out of steam so quickly.”

You just look at where they are on these issues and they’re basically in conflict with each other”, he continues. “It’s very difficult for an opposition to be heard when you’ve got a government at war. So there are big challenges for us about how we position ourselves and get a message of hope out there. It’s amazing to see. I never thought it would happen so quickly.”

It’s 8 o’clock, and time for Watson to entertain a crowd whose deep-seated resentment towards this current government is clear for all to see. It doesn’t take much probing to elicit responses such as “same old Tories”; the amassed Labour Party members are, in the main, as confident as Watson in the ability of their leader.

The music kicks off in fine style, with firm Manchester favourites The Smiths following Ian Dury and The Clash at the start of proceedings. There are more than a few wry smiles when Watson chooses The Jam’s ‘News of the World’ five songs in. By 9pm, everyone is on their feet and Watson himself is in possession of a fine air guitar as AC/DC blares out of the speakers.

With the set in full swing – and the night a roaring success – I return to ask him what the future holds. One thing is for certain; he is categorically not interested in leading the Labour Party. “I will never stand and run for leader of the Labour Party… it’s up to Ed whether or not he wants to put me in the Cabinet but to be honest, I’m not quite sure where my life is taking me right now. I have a life beyond politics, which is why I would never, ever, ever run for leader of the party!”

I put it to him, though, that his close identification with the ongoing phone hacking saga must be something of a cross to bear. After all, he had never intended to find himself in the eye of one of the greatest political storms of the modern era. “Well it’s one of those things. I feel like I’m in this and I need to finish it off. I need to be here ‘til the end. I feel I’ve got a responsibility to see it through… but with politics, if something comes your way, if the ball lands in your lap, you’ve got to run with it, even if very often you don’t know quite where it’s gonna go.”

Tom Watson’s book ‘Dial M For Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain’ is out now.