December 3, 2014: on a cold and windy Wednesday evening, hundreds turned out to hear Labour MP Tom Watson give the second Hacked Off Leveson Lecture, the venue being One Great George Street in Westminster. Its subject was “Unfinished Business”, and Watson memorably said of the press and Police’s past relationship “you don’t know who’s working for whom, but you know who they’re working against - the public”.
Go back further, to November 2011: in the aftermath of the Screws being closed down, after revelations that the paper had had a dead teenager’s mobile phone hacked, James Murdoch appeared before the DCMS Select Committee. Watson told the Murdoch son and heir “You must be the first Mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a criminal enterprise”. He was heavily criticised for that. But he was dead right.
The campaign against press abuse has had no more steadfast ally than Tom Watson, who yesterday decided to stand down as an MP at next month’s General Election. Small wonder so much of our free and fearless press is making such a show of his departure: they hated him with a passion. How dare a Labour MP object to their flagrant and persistent lawbreaking in pursuit of a few more sales? The audacity of the man!
When Tom Watson asked Murdoch Junior “Have you heard the term omertà?” he knew what he was talking about. He knew that when James Murdoch answered “I'm not an aficionado about such matters”, he was either incredibly naive, or a shameless liar. Watson knew where the tabloid press was at; the code of Omertà continues to this day. It was the breaking of that code that led to Piers Morgan calling Nick Davies “Judas”.
Now, though, after four years as Labour’s deputy leader, Watson has decided it is time for him to bow out of front-line politics. And while some on the left of the party are jeering and crowing this morning, they might more usefully stop and think: Jeremy Corbyn’s warm and gracious response to Watson’s decision to stand down tells you why.
A Mafia boss gesticulates
So many of those who have criticised Watson call him a Blairite, but this is unfair: he was, after all, one of those helping Blair out of the door to make way for Gordon Brown. And for all those who disliked him, many more will remember him well, as Jezza hinted when he observed “Few people have given as much to the Labour movement as you have and I know that many thousands of members and trade unionists you have inspired and worked with over the years will be very sorry to see you go”.
As to the timing of Watson’s announcement, there will be those claiming this is all some dastardly centrist plot to divert attention from the Tories’ shambolic start to their campaign. But there is no good time for such news; there would always be other events taking place, and accusations of an ulterior motive. The decision had been made; we would have found out sooner or later. Better to have some control over the process than none at all.
Meanwhile, the campaign against press misbehaviour goes on, and it seems Watson will be in there somewhere. After all, Labour has committed to continuing the Leveson Inquiry, whoever takes charge of it. And Jeremy Corbyn left a clue when he said in his reply to Watson “This is not the end of our work together”. And nor should it be.
Press campaigners, and many others, owe Tom big time. I’ll just leave that one there.
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