In Conversation with Tom Watson MP: edited transcript

British Labour MP has worked to expose and investigate activities by News Corporation figures ranging from phone hacking to bribing police. Chris Boland

Jill Singer: You’ve come here fresh from being British Labour’s campaign coordinator, which you’re not doing now. We won’t get into all the argy-bargy about that. But I wonder, coming from that perspective and looking at Labor’s campaign here, what do you think of the way Labor is campaigning?

Tom Watson: It’s really hard to make a judgement three or four days in. I’ve not dived in to the campaign, and literally the first Labor politician I met was last night on Q&A, when I met Bill Shorten. So I’ve not got a sense of what is going on the doorstep, but it’s an unusual campaign for them as they’re running as insurgents as the government so it can’t be easy for them to pick their message.

What struck me is that it feels very much like the 1992 general election in Britain, where it was pretty close at the start, and News Corp definitely did not want the Labour leader Neil Kinnock to win, so there was a very, very aggressive campaign. What their involvement in the campaign did was to make it very hard for both parties to pitch the future, talk about their message of hope and how they wanted to change the country.

And the effect of the reporting here strikes me as being somewhat similar.

On the panel last night they were all talking about how this line by Abbott

Jill Singer: “Does this guy ever shut up?”

Tom Watson: It seemed to me they would prefer to talk about Kevin Rudd’s character rather than what Kevin Rudd actually stands for and what kind of Australia you want into 2020. Unfortunately the parallels with the UK in 1992 are very similar.

Does Tony Abbott have Rupert Murdoch in his corner for this federal election? AAP/Dan Peled

On the ALP campaign, it obviously has been a very bruising period with leadership changes and that has made it quite hard for them to get their message across. Other than that I can’t really say much about the campaign because I haven’t really had a look at it.

Jill Singer: We’ve certainly got so much in common - including Rupert Murdoch. We’ve had a lot to say about Rupert Murdoch’s influence in Britain which we’ve seen, we’ve seen the repercussions of the Leveson Inquiry and a lot of that has come out. I wonder if there are any parallels here though because we’ve had News Limited in Australia saying: “any problems that have been there, have not been in Australia, that culture that people have complained about and has been exposed due to the Leveson Inquiry is not part of the culture here”. How plausible do you think that claim is?

Tom Watson: I think it’s plausible, but I never rule anything out with this company.

Jill Singer: What possible commercial interest do you think Rupert Murdoch could have in having an Abbott government elected?

Tom Watson: They would be one of the only companies that would benefit from there not being superfast broadband, an NBN, that goes straight into people’s homes.

I’m sure that he feels his commercial interests in the market would be best served by not welcoming competition there, and if an Abbott government doesn’t deliver that then they will be one of the few governments around the world that don’t have the intent to allow faster broadband connectivity into homes.

Jill Singer: Rupert Murdoch scoffs at that, Rupert Murdoch says that’s absolute nonsense, that the NBN would not damage his reach, or Foxtel, or anything at all.

Tom Watson: I don’t believe that. I just don’t believe it.

Jill Singer: I think some people might not realise how much and individual can be consumed when they take on Murdoch, on certainly on that personal level, you have paid a fairly high price for taking on Murdoch haven’t you?

Tom Watson: Yes. I try not to talk about my personal life really. Occasionally there is stuff in newspapers such as The Australian today, but when you come under that level of scrutiny, at the time I was being followed by private investigators, but they were commissioned by a guy called Mazher Mahood – The Fake Sheik they call him – and then they brought in a guy called Gareth who one of the journalists told me worked with audio visuals.

The former chief reporter of the News of the World told me that was instruction from down the executive, from what he described as the “deep carpet land” of the executive.

Jill Singer: So Murdoch people had private detective following you. What do you think they were hoping to find?

Tom Watson: What the journalists told me is that they were digging for dirt. Neville Thurlbeck, the chief reporter for the News of the World told me that they were instructed to line up every member of the committee that was investigating the companies, and he used the phrase: “find out who is gay, find out who is having an affair, we want to know everything about them”.

Jill Singer: Say you wanted to get some dirt on Murdoch. Do you ever understand the drive to get around, or cross ethical boundaries and get the information. Do you understand that temptation?

Tom Watson: I believe there should be a defence of public interest for journalism in the UK. In certain circumstances, for the greater good, a journalist can cross the line of law. But the way that worked in the UK was totally rampant.

Jill Singer: At the time when Rupert Murdoch was giving evidence before Leveson, he said it was the most “humble day of his life”. Did you believe him?

Tom Watson: No. But I immediately thought, “that’s the soundbite”. And I have experience of that because when I was put on the committee, the first evidence session we had with the editor of the NOTW, Colin Myler and the lawyer Tom Crone, and the very first thing they did, before even questions were taken, was challenge the chair and ask for my removal from the committee and ask for my removal from the committee because I had a legal action against The Sun for libel.

So before I left the room, before the MPs finished their questioning, the breaking news story on Sky News was “Attempt to remove MPs from committee over their interest”. I thought: “this is where they are looking for their headline”.

It actually wasn’t what he wanted because most people reported it as “humble pie” given the pie incident, but the soundbite was just all part of the media operation.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch on the ‘humblest day’ of his life before the Leveson Inquiry in 2011. EPA

Jill Singer: How concerned are you over the possibility that Rupert Murdoch perjured himself at the Leveson Inquiry?

Tom Watson: That would be for others to make that judgement in law. But what he said to Leveson was contrary to what he said in private to Sun journalists who were obviously so concerned about his conduct that they recorded it.

That was journalists at The Sun, there was more than one journalists who taped him, and there was more than one person who recorded that. While he was before Leveson he welcomed the inquiry and said they would co-operate with the police to get to the facts of the criminality.

What he told the journalists was we made a mistake, we should never have cooperated, and we won’t cooperate with the police anymore and sort of gave them the nod and the wink and said you’ll be alright if you ever get done for jail. Which is extraordinary for the chairman of a powerful global company to take that approach.

Jill Singer: Was that on oath?

Tom Watson: He was on oath, and if I was Lord Leveson I’d be asking which Rupert Murdoch was telling me the truth.

Jill Singer: What do you think should happen to Julian Assange?

WikiLeaks may not have properly protected Chelsea Manning, according to Watson. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Tom Watson: It is very hard for me to give you a clear answer on this because I’m not across it all. The main issue for me with Julian Assange is his relationship with Chelsea Manning and I was genuinely taken aback when Chelsea Manning got 35 years for what she called whistleblowing.

I’m not sure whether the WikiLeaks people necessarily protected her interests throughout the case and I worry about that. I do think you have to care for a source like that and circumstances might have made that impossible.