Tom Watson on phone hacking and stepping down
“I like film, I like karaoke, I like football matches.”
This is why Tom Watson joined the culture, media and sport select committee in 2009, as the Labour MP told the Hansard Society yesterday.
In a speech titled ‘Parliament and the phone hacking scandal’, Watson revealed that when he took up his place on the committee, he had been “99% certain” he would stand down at the 2010 election.
“I was so thoroughly sick of the whole system,” he said.
In 2009, the Labour MP had resigned from his ministerial post in the Cabinet Office after The Sun had “smeared” him. That had taken an “unbearable toll” on his personal and family life, he said.
Just as Watson joined the committee, Nick Davies of the Guardian broke the hacking story. The MPs decided to look into the issue. For Watson, “it soon became absolutely clear that [News International] were in the process of covering up a relatively big scandal”.
“You develop a sense of responsibility to those who have come forward,” he said. “You develop a sense of duty.”
Watson realised the scandal engaged “all the pillars of democracy that were supposed to keep checks and balances in place, maintain the equilibrium and keep the likes of the Dowler family safe”.
Last year’s revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s voicemail were, according to Watson, the turning point. Watson praised other MPs who, at this point, “admirably played catch-up".
Watson’s profile has soared since his clashes with the Murdochs. However, when he likened James Murdoch to a mafia boss last November, he did attract some criticism. Many thought his style of questioning melodramatic and counterproductive. In a speech last November, Times editor James Harding said the question made Watson "go from looking like a man who is pursuing an investigation, to looking like a man who is pursuing an agenda".
Last night, Watson appeared willing to learn lessons from this session with James Murdoch. He said he saw a case for allowing lawyers to put questions on a select committee’s behalf so MPs probing issues such as phone hacking avoid looking like “junior Perry Masons”.
"Not all inquiries require a formal cross-examination,” he said. “In fact most of them are there to look at what policy should look like in the future.
"When you are trying to get facts out of people who don't really want to give you that information, I think there is a case to say that select committees should be supplemented with professional legal advocates who perhaps could put some of the questions on behalf of the committee or help members with their question plan so they can co-ordinate the way they do their questions."
Watson also expressed concern about the “pretty limp” power committees have to force an important witness to give evidence: "Had the summons been refused, I don't think there is a lot we could have done to compel Rupert and James Murdoch to give evidence.”
In a Total Politics interview last year, culture, media and sport select committee chairman John Whittingdale raised a similar problem. You can read the full interview here.