In September 2006, Tom Watson, a junior minister in the British Labour government of the day, let it be known that he thought it high time that prime minister Tony Blair informed the public when he intended to resign. At that point, it just seemed like yet another case of politicians falling out in a notably fractious government.
There were some who took it more seriously than that. “My editor will pursue you for the rest of your life”, Watson was told by the political editor of The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper and cornerstone of Rupert Murdoch’s News International (NI) empire. Blair was close to the Murdochs and their senior British executives. He was one of the family. It was personal. Watson should expect revenge, not reporting.
The axe fell in 2009. Watson was falsely linked to an attempt to smear opposition politicians and then subjected to a torrent of abuse in the Murdoch press: he was a “mad dog”, a “tub of lard”, “poisonous” and a “stain on the government’s credibility”. Meanwhile, people close to the prime minister were texted with the demand they sack him and three men, one with a camera, staged an attempted break-in at his home.
Watson had been given the treatment, although not the full tabloid treatment. What he got was just enough to let him know that the most ruthless news machine in the country thought of him as an enemy. But instead of crawling off into a corner somewhere and hoping no one would notice him, Watson became a dogged and resourceful opponent of the empire, ramrodding the parliamentary end of a series of inquiries that planned to reveal the extent of corruption and influence peddling in Murdoch’s British interests.
Dial M for Murdoch is the story of what he and others found in uncovering an affair that has seen the arrests of multiple journalists and executives, the closure of Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper, the resignation of the chief of London’s Metropolitan Police and the paying out of millions of pounds in compensation, all conducted against the background thunder of senior politicians stampeding away from a man whose favour they once competed for. In the case of the current government, it may be that they are not stampeding far enough or fast enough.
The book is co-written by Watson and Martin Hickman, a journalist at The Independent. Presumably it is to Hickman that we owe a lucid account of multiple intersecting scandals that both requires and rewards careful reading. Dial M for Murdoch is not an angry, flashy polemic, though there is an enlivening vein of anger running under the surface. Instead it has the measured, systematic tread of dirt being stamped on a grave. It is the brief of an executioner equipped with all the necessary data.
What it uncovers is corruption as an emergent phenomena, spreading outwards in a moral vacuum from outright criminality through layers of ethical squalor, power worship and endemic complacency until it eventually becomes established as a new normal – a “shadow state” in Watson and Hickman’s words.
At the heart of this, say the authors, was the ruthless newsroom culture established in Murdoch’s British tabloids, where journalists were driven to get the story by any means necessary and given complete impunity if the methods they used were successful. In the first instance, this meant establishing networks of bribable people – notably in the police but also in other major public institutions. As technology advanced, so did what journalists cheerily called the “Dark Arts”, into phone and computer hacking.
The authors make clear that the “Dark Arts” extended far beyond NI. What was different about the Murdoch interests was its use of what might be called the “Even Darker Arts”, ie the way it used the undoubted success of newspaper assets to make itself politically untouchable.
From / The National