On 19 April 2012 Tom Watson MP and Martin Hickman published their book about phone-hacking and related scandals, Dial M for Murdoch (Allen Lane £20). This is Tom Watson’s preface to the book, reproduced here with the permission of the authors and the publisher.
This book tries to explain how a particular global media company works: how it came to exert a poisonous, secretive influence on public life in Britain, how it used its huge power to bully, intimidate and to cover up, and how its exposure has changed the way we look at our politicians, our police service and our press. Some political ‘friends’ have tried to portray the hacking and bribery which has exposed the workings of News Corporation as part of the price you pay for good tabloid journalism. They’re wrong.
Of course, tabloids sometimes get out of hand, but this is not (at least, not much) a story of harmless mischief, of reporters in false moustaches and rollicking exposés of hypocrites. It is not just the famous and wealthy who have been damaged, but ordinary decent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The legendary Fleet Street names whose reputations have been tarnished could almost (but not quite) be considered tiny pawns. This is a power game played out in the boardrooms and dining salons of the elite, and every political party, mine included, has had an inner circle of people on the Murdoch invitation list. Ultimately this scandal is about the failure of politicians to act in the interests of the powerless rather than themselves. As the book shows, I hope beyond any doubt, prime ministers, ministers, Parliament, the police, the justice system and the ‘free’ press became collectively defective when it came to investigating the activities of NewsCorp.
Now that Murdoch’s corrupt grip on our national institutions is loosening, and thanks to the laser-beam focus of Lord Justice Leveson, who leads the public inquiry into this affair, these individuals and public bodies are belatedly start- ing to clean up their acts.
I know from personal experience what it’s like to be attacked by Rupert Murdoch’s organization. In the book, I give a first-hand account of some of the worst moments – though they were infinitely less bad, of course, than others have suffered.
Sometimes, now, I can laugh at my former situation: a well connected ex-minister in parliament, altering his route home at night, fearful of someone who might be in pursuit. But the affair has taken its toll: the failure of my marriage, the loss of friends and intense stress over many years. Even though the mechanisms of intimidation have now been exposed, I still obsessively memorize the number plates of unfamiliar vehicles parked outside my house. That’s what it does to you when you’re at the receiving end of the Murdoch fear machine – the threats, bullying, covert surveillance, hacking, aggressive reporting and personal abuse make you permanently wary.
That was the state I was in – suspicious and paranoid – when Martin Hickman called me in October 2010, for the first time in ten years. I was distrustful of most reporters and at a low ebb, but Martin was an old friend: we had known each other well at Hull University, where he’d set up a newspaper and I’d become president of the Students’ Union, my first elected position. At that stage, a trusted journalist seeking to investigate a media cover-up was rare.
Regularly from then on, we would meet quietly at the Fire Station bar next to Waterloo station in South London, often for black coffee and breakfast before work, or occasionally late at night over a beer. Whilst the commuters tapped into their laptops and the revellers partied, we would sit in the corner, away from prying MPs and journalists, talking about developments as they happened. Martin was always a great person to bounce things off.
Of course, I wasn’t working in isolation. Many individuals, most notably the Guardian’s Nick Davies, the BBC’s Glenn Campbell and lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris, played critical parts in unravelling this complex scandal. Even so, in the early days, it was a lonely pursuit.
We became close in the face of opposition from Murdoch’s UK executives, the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Press Complaints Commission and many of my fellow politicians. We were all helped by the brave whistleblowers who summoned the courage to share key information with us. Though still too frightened to go public, they know who they are, and believe me, they are heroes.
Because I was involved, I come into the book myself from time to time, as Martin does occasionally too. But though the story is inevitably coloured by personal experiences, we didn’t want to over- emphasize our roles, and for that reason it is written in the third person: I am not ‘me’ or ‘Tom’ but ‘Tom Watson’; similarly Martin is ‘Martin Hickman’.
Martin is calm and cautious. I am not. I hope our contrasting characters have created an accurate and informative account, albeit one which leaves you in no doubt as to what we think of the events and organization we are writing about. Many of the events are public knowledge, but they have become so in fits and starts and the connections between them have not been made.
We believe that seeing the story whole, as it is presented here for the first time, allows the character of the organization to emerge unmistakably. Please tell us what you think. We’re on Twitter at @tom_watson and @Martin_Hickman.
This story is not yet over, but it extends deeper into the past than some may realize. For most, it really began when a newspaper story about the hacking of a missing girl’s phone prompted a national wail of outrage so loud it was heard in the lofty world of Rupert Murdoch, and the mighty proprietor had to account for his actions to representatives of the people for the first time. So this is where our story begins – in the middle of those tumultuous days.
Tom Watson, April 2012