‘Rupert Murdoch’s shadow state’ and other bullshit

Tom Watson’s self-aggrandising retelling of the tabloid phone-hacking scandal shows that Murdochphobics are becoming almost as cranky as 9/11 truthers or Obama birthers.

Brendan O'Neill
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Is Labour MP Tom Watson the most ridiculous man in British politics? I know the competition is stiff – Jacob Rees-Mogg? Either one of Labour’s two Eds? That Lib Dem guy who look likes Beaker from The Muppets and who somehow became something big in the Treasury? – but the answer is definitely yes. Watson’s book on the Murdoch Empire, written with Independent journalist Martin Hickman, is one of the silliest things I’ve had the misfortune to read. It wouldn’t even be worth reviewing if it wasn’t for the fact that behind Watson’s embarrassing lack of self-awareness and teenage levels of self-aggrandisement it reveals a great deal about what is motoring the Murdochphobia of the modern political class.


Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

The fuller-figured Watson is famous for two things: for once claiming the maximum food allowance granted to MPs (£4,800), and for sitting on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee which grilled Rupert and James Murdoch, and others, in relation to the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. This book is about that scandal. Or more accurately, it is about a brave man’s ceaseless mental fight to push that scandal to the forefront of British public life and to loosen Rupert Murdoch’s ‘corrupt grip on our national institutions’. That man is, of course, Tom Watson.

So what is Tom Watson like? It’s funny you should ask because the book, though ostensibly about Murdoch’s creation of a ‘shadow state’ in Britain which had a ‘poisonous influence on public life’, has a lot to tell us about the good character of Tom Watson. We learn that he likes ‘sinking pints of real ale’. We know he loves The Doors because we’re told that in order to prep himself for grilling the Murdochs, he ‘shut the door of his office in Portcullis House, put on The Doors album LA Woman at full blast and paced around rehearsing questions’. He doesn’t always drink real ale – we learn that after he interrogated the Murdochs at the culture committee, an event modestly referred to as ‘Democracy Day’, he went to Claridge’s and celebrated with pink champagne.

One particularly unsettling feature of the book is that, because it is co-authored, Watson doesn’t write in the first person. Instead he writes sentences like, ‘One of the nine parliamentarians facing the Murdochs was Tom Watson’, ‘Watson now experienced what it was like to get on the wrong side of the Murdoch Empire’, and ‘Watson ordered a bottle of pink champagne’. It’s all a bit weird. Who could write like that without feeling enormously embarrassed? Brendan O’Neill stopped writing about Watson for five minutes and had a cup of coffee.

The clear aim of Watson and Hickman’s book is to turn the fall of the News of the World into a super-simplistic, Hollywood-style morality tale featuring goodies and baddies. Sometimes they use people’s hair as a signifier of whether they are good or bad. So former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks is ‘a mischievous, red-haired tabloid queen’, while Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has been writing about tabloid phone-hacking since before phones were invented (it certainly feels like that), has a ‘swirl of receding white hair’. Brooks is also ‘coquettish’, a ‘kisser’, ‘very tactile’, the daughter of a ‘tugboat worker’, who was once a ‘21-year-old secretary’ who ‘hankered’ after a career in journalism, and who devoted her time to ‘working, scheming and networking’ her way to the top. I think this means she is bad. In the film version of the book that probably plays on a loop inside Watson’s head, I imagine Brooks is played by Glenn Close in a scarlet wig.

At times, you wonder about Watson’s mental health. Don’t worry, this isn’t libellous – his friends worry about it, too. We’re told that when Watson phoned his researcher at 3am to have a ‘frantic, whispered conversation’ with her about some scandal that is so boring I have literally forgotten what it was about, she ‘became anxious about his state of mind’. We’re also told that, one time, after The Times did a Reservoir Dogs-style mock-up of Watson and other Labourites who were said to be part of Gordon Brown’s sinister cabal of enforcers and smearers, ‘Watson walked along the beach, in tears’ and then phoned his friend Sion Simon, a former Labour MP, and started ‘literally raving’ and ‘talking crazy’.

Some of his friends might once again worry for Watson after they read his descriptions of Rupert Murdoch’s influence on British public life. Seriously, take out the word ‘Murdoch’ and replace it with the word ‘lizard’, and I’m sure much of this book could double up as David Icke’s next offering. We’re told that Murdoch exercised ‘a poisonous, secretive influence on public life’ and had a ‘corrupt grip on our national institutions’, on ‘prime ministers, ministers, parliament, the police, the justice system’. Apparently he ‘orchestrated public life from the shadows’. From ‘the decks of yachts in the Mediterranean to farmhouses in the Cotswolds’, Rupert and his robots ‘spun an invisible web of connections and corruption’. At one stage Watson leaps from David Icke territory into JK Rowling land, telling us: ‘The names of [Murdoch’s] agents spoke of the darkness: Silent Shadow, Shadowmenuk…’

It sounds eerily like conspiracy theorising. The language precisely echoes that which is used by the 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers who lurk in the underbelly of the interweb: it shares with them a belief that there is a ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ sect which controls everything from ‘the shadows’. The last chapter of the book is called ‘Darker and darker’, and it is of course a yet further delve into the dark world of what Watson’s calls the Murdoch-created ‘shadow state’, those mysterious men on yachts who ‘orchestrate public life’ (!) in Britain. In the photo section of the book, we get an unwittingly hilarious mash-up of the Icke outlook and the Rowling style: there’s an olde world map headlined ‘The Cotswold Triangle’ which shows that David Cameron’s constituency is close to Rebekah Brooks’ home, which is close to Elisabeth Murdoch’s home, which is close to the Cheltenham race track where Brooks has been known to meet friends. I say friends. They’re probably her fellow rulers in the shadow state.

Some might think that it wasn’t only on the phone to Sion Simon that Watson was ‘talking crazy’. Yes, of course Murdoch was influential, as you would expect of the proprietor of both Britain’s newspaper of record (The Times) and its bestselling tabloid (the Sun). But the notion that he orchestrated public life, controlling politicians, the police and the justice system from a boat, is nothing more than a chattering-class conspiracy theory, a more respectable version of the sort of bollocks Oliver Stone talks about the killing of JFK.

Watson’s book confirms what Murdoch has become for a Labour Party bamboozled by the public’s indifference to it and for liberal commentators befuddled by the failure of their petty ideas to make inroads with ordinary folk – a catch-all explanation for the travails facing the modern mainstream left and British politics more broadly. Incapable of grappling with the real reasons why Labour’s fortunes are waning and why parliament seems bereft of both purpose and remotely interesting members, the Murdochphobics have become convinced that it is all HIS fault, Rupert and his agents called ‘Silent Shadow’, who have visited upon this land a terrible plague of dumbed-down politics and hollowed-out institutions. Just as pointy-hatted weirdos in the Middle Ages tried to convince their communities that the old woman who lived alone in a hut was responsible for bad weather and crop failure, so modern-day Murdochphobics want us to believe that one Aussie on a yacht is to blame for the fall of Neil Kinnock, the dry spell suffered by Labour in the Eighties, the fact that the Tories are useless and insincere, the lack of public respect for parliament, and so on.

But fear not! For Watson and his merry band of anti-Murdoch warriors (at one stage we’re told that Watson drinks in a pub called Ye Olde Robin Hood – nice) are here to save the day. Thanks in part to his efforts, thanks to the ‘Democracy Day’ he spearheaded in the culture committee when the chief lizard and his son were made to answer for their jealous orchestration of British public life, the Murdoch Empire has finally been ‘exposed by the daylight’, we’re told. ‘It has been publicly humbled.’ Shorter version: ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead.’

Bashing Murdoch has become a sad substitute for asking what has gone wrong with British politics. For the true cause of disarray in British public life, we should avert our gaze from yachts in the Mediterranean and look closer to home. A proper look at Watson’s own Labour Party would be a good place to start. The double standards in this book are so audacious they almost become admirable. Watson complains about the Murdoch drones controlling politics from behind the scenes, yet he then recounts how in 2005 he and ‘a few friends’ visited ‘the Bilash Indian restaurant in Wolverhampton’ where they started hatching ‘a mutiny against Tony Blair’ – confirming that Labour is now as cut-off and Machiavellian and stuck ‘behind the scenes’ as any big corporation. Watson also complains that Murdoch’s minions hacked not just phones but also computers, ‘everything electronic’ – neglecting to mention that his party passed acts of law which grant the state the authority to snoop into ‘everything electronic’ belonging to the public, from our emails to our web-surfing habits. That a leading member of a party which relentlessly invaded our privacy now wants us to be shocked by the fact that he was once followed by a PI in the pay of News International… well, it shows that what Watson lacks in irony recognition he more than makes up for with brass neck.

Watson sings the praises of the Leveson Inquiry, which was set up post-News of the World to interrogate the ethics of the press. He hopes it will put the apparently rabid press (the tabloids, that is) back in its place. In other words, de-fang it, tame it, or what we used to call ‘censor it’. That seems a terribly high price to pay just because a Labour MP is still smarting from the fact that he was once labelled by the Sun as a ‘tub of lard’ and ‘Two Dinners Tommy’ who was involved in Labour’s internal backstabbing ‘up to his bulging and bloated neck’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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