The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR TOM WATSON (affirmed).

  • You've provided us with a witness statement. The version I have isn't signed or dated but are you content to attest to its contents for the purposes of this Inquiry.

  • There are one or two typographical errors in it which we will deal with as we proceed. First of all, may I give a short history of your career --

  • Before you do, Mr Watson, thank you very much for this statement and for the obvious work that was put into it. I am very conscious that bits of it look like a Swiss cheese, but that's because, as I'm sure you appreciate, I've had to take a certain line in relation to specific details, both in relation to the investigation that's presently being conducted by the Metropolitan Police and also because of other incidents which I can't touch, but which may cause potential prejudice.

  • Yes, sir. I thought that it was better to be comprehensive and you could redact as appropriate.

  • That's the reason for it anyway. Thank you.

  • A short history now of your career. In the 2001 election, you were elected a Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East. In 2006, you were appointed Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Defence. On 6 September 2006, you resigned and I believe called for the Prime Minister to resign. In January 2008, you returned to government as Parliamentary Undersecretary of State of the Cabinet office. I hope I have the date right, Mr Watson.

  • I think that's right, yes.

  • In June 2009, you resigned and in June or July 2009, you joined the DCMS Select Committee; is that correct?

  • Yes, that's correct.

  • Thank you. The circumstances of your second resignation, they are dealt with on the second page of your statement, our page 05548, where you explain the maelstrom of media attention during the Damian McBride saga. That saga in fact was in 2008, not 2009, but in your own words, what was the maelstrom of media attention?

  • Well, there was an allegation that I was copied in on Damian McBride's emails where he had allegedly attempted to smear opponents of the Labour Party, and it started with a blog post on Iain Dale's website, and then he was commissioned to write a story for the Mail on Sunday and then there was an explosion of media interest, obviously, for about a week, and the reason it was so troubling, I guess, was because it was actually an inaccurate statement made by Iain Dale. He subsequently apologised for it and produced the copy amendment he gave to the Mail on Sunday on the Saturday evening before publication.

  • Right, and you explain the personal, family and political pressure you were under at that time, which culminated in your resignation from government in 2009; is that right?

  • And since joining the DCMS Select Committee, you have made phone hacking and News International an important part of your political endeavour; is that right?

  • We'll go into that in due course. Can I ask you a general question about your sources without asking you to identify anybody, Mr Watson, I'm sure you wouldn't do that anyway. You touch on that at page 05549 when you refer to whistle-blowers and confidential sources.

  • Is it fair to say that overall you have a number of sources who have been in a position to assist you with direct evidence, if I can put it in those terms?

  • Yes, that's correct.

  • And some of those sources might have been within newspapers; is that right?

  • Some of them worked for newspaper groups, yes.

  • Any within the police, can you say?

  • One close to the police.

  • You were speaking generically. What other sort of categories of person are we talking about?

  • It's people who have knowledge of News International in particular and the criminal inquiry. There are a growing number of people who are approaching me with the -- with their evidence, and I'm making sure -- trying to persuade them to give statements to the police where appropriate.

  • This is a matter of some delicacy, but we'll touch on it very lightly. I think you were approached by Mr Thurlbeck and had a conversation with him; is that right?

  • That's correct, yes.

  • To be clear, that conversation was at his instigation not yours; is that right?

  • There was a former colleague of his who asked that we introduce -- that we talked, and he said he would like to talk to me about allegations that had been made about him that I won't go into any further detail about.

  • As far as you're concerned, many aspects of your conversation are edged with confidentiality, are they?

  • There was a very narrow agreement between the two of us that was to do with his involvement in the "for Neville" email incident that I won't -- I'd better not talk about. The rest I considered public.

  • Okay. Page 05551 --

  • Are any of these people who you've encouraged to speak to the police people you've also encouraged to speak to the Inquiry?

  • Yes, sir, and they have hopefully put in submissions that may come your way, one in particular last week. I've asked one of the lawyers to make sure that you're made aware of it.

  • 05551 now, Mr Watson. You say in the third line you've also been contacted by a number of MPs who have had experience of intimidating behaviour by news organisations. Can we just understand this? Approximately how many?

  • Well, I would say about a dozen, who give different levels of detail about their sense of fear and their own experiences of feeling intimidated by the newspapers, one of which I've -- in the submission is in some detail, but I would say that's illustrative of the kind of experiences that MPs perceive they've been through or actually have been through.

  • Are we talking about MPs from all parties or from one party --

  • On both sides of the House, yes. In fact, all the main parties. Not just the three main parties but the minor parties as well.

  • Are their experiences limited to News International or do they go wider?

  • They generally talked to me about their experiences with News International, but others have raised stories to do with most tabloid newspapers.

  • Insofar as there are any general themes -- it may be there are not -- could you share those with us?

  • I think it is fear of ridicule and humiliation to do with their private lives or their political mistakes and they feel threatened by it. They always sort of -- if they've taken a particular position on an issue, they all have a story to tell that involves them feeling intimidated and frightened.

  • So the concern is that matters personal to them or maybe prior political mistakes -- and I'm sure everybody's made those -- would be unearthed? Is that the point?

  • Yes, or amplified in the pages of newspapers.

  • Thank you. You give a couple of specific examples and we'll look at those later.

  • Again, have you sought to encourage them to come to me?

  • Yes, sir. In fact, I think there is an MP -- a former MP who has made a submission or is about to make a submission, and the two MPs I've put in this document gave permission for this to come in, and I am hoping to write to all MPs to say that -- encourage them to give their experiences.

  • It's sooner rather than later, please, Mr Watson.

  • The train isn't stopping, because if there is to be any hope of doing anything within a reasonable time, it seems to me that I have to crack on, unless you say something different to me.

  • No. I hope the examples I've given are illustrative of the kind of intimidation MPs feel they're going through, and if there are other specific examples, I do encourage colleagues to come forward.

  • I understand, but I'm sure you'll appreciate the point that it might be thought that you are one very, very -- you have a very clear position, and therefore to some extent it might be said that you don't bring an entirely dispassionate eye to the issues with which I am concerned, and therefore if there are many with the concerns that you express, it is obviously extremely important that I hear from them directly so that they are not -- they can't be -- the story can't be tarred with the brush: "Well, this has come through, somebody whose views are perfectly well-known." I'm sure you understand the point. This is a once in a lifetime chance.

  • I do, sir, and I will make sure that your views are aired very visibly -- very forcibly, to my colleagues.

  • It's reported in the Guardian for Saturday, 28 April -- this is tab 83 -- that you were going to write to all other MPs asking them if they've ever been threatened or bullied by News International. Have you done that yet?

  • I drafted the letter but I've sort of run out of time to stuff the envelopes. But I promise I will.

  • I'd be very grateful, if you are writing, that you don't just restrict your request to News International. I am keen to look at the press as a whole, plus and minus, but it is important that -- I think it's important that I focus on the broader picture not just the narrow.

  • The article also states that Mr Mosley is providing legal assistance to MPs to reveal potential blackmail and intimidation; is that correct?

  • He's offered assistance but I've not taken it and I don't know whether he's agreed that with any other MPs or not.

  • In terms of the development of the phone hacking scandal, to use a neutral term, you obviously occupy a central role and we've read all the documents you've furnished us with. Some of them can't be put in the public domain because of their sensitivity. That's fully understood. Can I alight, if I may, on some highlights?

  • We heard evidence that consideration was being given at a high level to the possibility of a public inquiry in the early spring of 2010, before the May election that year. Were you aware of that and it if so, did you have any involvement?

  • I wasn't aware of that prior to the General Election. I only knew that there had been a debate within government after that. I should say that I've been pushing for a public inquiry quite -- I think as early as 2009, but I certainly didn't get a response from government ministers on that.

  • You, I believe, were reasonably close do Mr Brown. Can you throw any light on what happened at the back end of 2009 and the alleged declaration of war on News International or not?

  • I can't. I've never witnessed any conversations or phone calls between Gordon Brown and any editor or proprietor. I can only say that I would find it highly unlikely that he would use that language in a phone call to someone -- well, to anyone, but in particular someone as senior and of an age that Rupert Murdoch is.

  • The New York Times published their lengthy piece on 1 September 2010, and the following day, Mr Watson, you wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister because the Prime Minister was on paternity leave.

  • It's under our tab 4 in the bundle we've prepared, the letter you wrote to Mr Clegg of 2 September.

  • Our page 05529. You ask for two things: first of all, confirmation that the Independent Police Complaints Commission would investigate, and secondly, you said:

    "There are clear grounds for a judicial inquiry. Please can you confirm intention to recommend one."

  • That was based on obviously all you knew at that point but it had been brought into close focus by what you'd read in the New York Times?

  • Did that article in the New York Times contain anything that you didn't know?

  • Well, the New York Times had been in London for about three or four months and I'd been sort of around the hacking inquiry and talked to the journalists, so it wasn't a surprise when they published the article. I guess the real surprise was any UK newspaper could have unearthed the information they found relatively easily, but it took a New York paper to do it, and I saw it very much as a sort of opportunity to persuade the new government to act, given that this -- the Guardian story had essentially been verified by an external newspaper.

  • The follow-up point I had -- you mentioned three to four months. The question really relates perhaps to the resources in the New York Times. The inference may be: they have the resources to carry out this form of investigative journalism; papers here don't. Is that a fair comment or not?

  • There's certainly a -- they're certainly a well-resourced newspaper, but I think any national newspaper could have got the story they wrote. Much of it was from court documents or testimony of people that they could have found in the phone book.

  • Certainly. You received a reply to your letter not from the Deputy Prime Minister but from the Home Secretary. It's under tab 5.

  • It came to you on 8 September.

  • The point was made that the IPCC is independent. The Secretary of State goes through the history and says at the end:

    "The appropriate course is to await the outcome of the further police enquiries."

    Were you satisfied with that reply?

  • No, sir. It was a kind of a circular argument. I wasn't surprised with the reply. I guess the point of my letter was to try and raise -- apply pressure to ministers and try and bring it to their awareness that this was a very serious matter that the police were really not doing anything about.

  • Thank you. Moving forward to January 2011, Mr Watson, under tab 14 you'll see that on -- I think it's 8 January, our page 05430, you wrote to Mr James Murdoch, who of course was chairman and chief executive Europe and Asia of News International. He was based in London. You drew to his attention the issues arising out of Mr Justice Eady's judgment in the Max Mosley case; is that correct?

  • And the issue of blackmail.

  • You asked a number of specific questions at page 05431. Do you see those:

    "What action do you now plan to take against Neville Thurlbeck?"

    Why he didn't suspend him, I paraphrase, why he didn't report the matter to the police.

    Did you receive any reply to that letter?

  • You're going to have to remind me, please -- I have reread the evidence that was given before your committee on 19 July of last year. Did you return to this specific issue with Mr James Murdoch? I know you did with Mr Rupert Murdoch.

  • I raised it with Mr Rupert Murdoch, yes, and you always regret the questions you don't ask, and I should have asked why I didn't get a response to this letter, but time was limited.

  • The evidence Mr Rupert Murdoch gave is, of course, a matter of record. It is question 171, questions you asked him on 19 July. The bundle of evidence is EV18. You asked him some specific questions about Mr Thurlbeck and Mr Murdoch said:

    "That's the first I've heard of that."

    And he invited his son to deal with it in more detail.

  • So the matter was raised with Mr Rupert Murdoch, but it might be said you didn't get very far?

  • He said he had no knowledge of it, which surprised me because I would have thought that if he was being briefed before coming to our committee, the Eady judgment would have been raised with him. It was a very serious allegation about one of his reporters.

  • Well, it might, in one sense, be thought to be to one side of what the main thrust of your investigation was.

  • Perhaps, sir. Perhaps.

  • Is it the procedure of the Select Committee to pre-warn witnesses of all the questions they're going to be asked or not?

  • Not all the questions. I think the clerks give an indication of the areas that we're likely to stray into.

  • Do you happen to recall whether this was an area which had been pre-notified?

  • I don't, I'm afraid, no. I did do my own -- you do get briefings produced by clerks before you put your questions. I did my own research for that particular enquiry.

  • I think, to be fair, the clerks identify the areas that they believe the committee are likely to be interested in, but they make it very, very clear that that does not in any way inhibit the members of the committee from asking such questions as they think are appropriate.

  • Moving forward now --

  • I should just say on that, the one thing I'd indicated to colleagues on the committee was that I thought that the corporate governance arrangements for the company were important, so it may be that Rupert Murdoch senior was warned that there may be questions around the corporate culture.

  • Thank you. Tab 16 now, Mr Watson. A letter to you from Mr Yates, who then was acting deputy commissioner, 18 February 2011. By that stage, of course, Operation Weeting had been launched about three weeks beforehand; is that so?

  • I only draw attention to one paragraph because it meshes with other evidence we've heard. I'm not going to comment on it. The third paragraph:

    "However, due to the outstanding public legal and political concerns, I'd invited the DPP, on Friday, 14 January 2011, to further re-examine all the material collected in this matter."

    We've seen the contemporaneous notes of what happened on that occasion. I think I'll just leave that point there.

    Mr Starmer, he wrote to you in response to letters you wrote to him on 26 January under tab 20. He made it clear that the review was being conducted by his principal legal adviser and she'd been asked to carry out the assessment as soon as possible.

  • I think it was the next day that Operation Weeting was formally announced. Perhaps the exact date doesn't matter. Once Operation Weeting starts, of course it follows its own course. Do you have confidence in the way Operation Weeting has proceeded?

  • Yes. I think I have absolute confidence and I think the inquiry is being carried out with a very professional team who are inscrutable.

  • The critical thing in the 26 January letter is that what Mr Starmer is saying is: "We're now going to look at everything that was in the possession of the Metropolitan Police", not merely that which he'd previously done, which was look at only what had been sent through to the CPS.

  • That's correct, yes.

  • Thank you. Once Operation Weeting starts, the rest is history. It's all in the public domain, culminating in what happened in July of last year. I'm not going to refer specifically to any other of these materials, but of course we have read them all.

    May I move now to section 4 of your statement, page 05554. You refer to the investigation pointing to a complete failure of basic levels of corporate governance at News International. So we're clear about that, that is your commentary on what others have found. It's not evidence you can directly give us; is that right?

  • No, these are my views, yes.

  • Again, you're entitled to express your views, but we need to identify what they are rather than necessarily being evidence. 05555, five lines down, you say:

    "It is hard not to draw the conclusion that ultimately this scandal was allowed to play out because of the failure of politicians to act in the public interest. Unlike newspaper groups, News International behaved like the ultimate floating voter, but with menace. This helped create a zero-sum political game, where narrow personal or party interests took precedence over anything else."

    The failure of politicians to act in the public interest, are you alleging there any form of collusion with News International or are you merely identifying an omission, which is, in your view, surprising?

  • I have no hard evidence that there was a craven understanding between politicians and senior executives at News International, but I do believe there's a -- that is the general view of the public and that we need reforms that mean public confidence in those relationships is restored.

  • I'm sure most people would agree that at the level of perception there is a problem of too great a proximity, but you probably heard me try to break down what the different categories might be. We have express deals, implied deals and perception. Where are we on that spectrum, Mr Watson?

  • It's difficult to be precise on that. I heard you questioning Lord Mandelson yesterday. I would say implied deals, actually, but I can't provide you with the evidence, I'm afraid, Mr Jay.

  • Okay. You do name three politicians, Mr Watson, about six paragraphs down this page. I'm going to pass over Mr Huhne, if you don't mind, because that's quite sensitive at the moment.

  • Dr Cable I think we can probably work our for ourselves but why have you cited the Lord Chancellor there?

  • The reason I use Kenneth Clarke is -- and again, this is imprecise, but he is a politician who's prepared to swim against the tide and has been -- because of that, frequently gets very harsh comment in News International papers, in particular the Sun. He's one of their target MPs, I would say.

  • But is that different from other papers? My experience of the justice portfolio and particularly the crime and law and order portfolio is that the challenges to those holding political office with that portfolio come thick and fast. I'm not sure that it would be fair to restrict it to News International.

  • Which is why, I think, it's hard to be precise. I would say that Kenneth Clarke is one of those characters that would make decisions not based on how it would be reported in tabloid newspapers, and there are some politicians who feel that they have to factor that into their decision-making and they themselves will have to answer for examples of that, but Kenneth Clarke, the way he is portrayed in the press is as a result of him refusing to play those kind of daily games you have to do.

  • But that's not just News International; that's across the piece.

  • It is, sir. Yes, it is.

  • The next page, Mr Watson, some of your ideas for the future we're going to capture at the end of your evidence.

  • 05556. The paragraph in the middle of the page where you say:

    "The scandal is about political failure. Successive prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron, must share in the responsibility for allowing executives at News International and other media groups to believe they had become unaccountable."

    Lord Mandelson came out with a similar point by phrased it differently yesterday. What do you mean by that?

  • I think Lord Mandelson was very eloquent yesterday and I couldn't disagree with his analysis there, but I think -- if I may comment on his testimony to help illustrate this. He mentioned Rebekah Brooks saying to him: "Can members of the DCMS committee be pulled off?" That strikes me as a totally improper thing for a chief executive of a company to do to the first Secretary of State, to try and interfere with a parliamentary inquiry, and so they -- that sense of having no boundaries or borders, I think, was absolutely illustrated in Lord Mandelson's testimony yesterday when he made that passing comment.

  • At section 5, you deal with personal experience and your letter of resignation in 2006. The question was related to Mrs Brooks.

    The first of your answers at page 05557 refer to something Mr George Pascoe-Watson, who was previously the political editor of the Sun, told you. You give the date 2005 there but I think you mean 2006.

  • You say:

    "Rebekah will never forgive you for what you did to her Tony."

    Do you have a clear recollection of that?

  • I absolutely do, yes. It's not the sort of thing you would forget.

  • Why did you interpret that as a threat? It may just have been an observation.

  • At the time, it was quite a chilling comment. I didn't understand how that would play out over the next few years, but it was certainly lodged in my memory and it -- you know, it was a very unusual phraseology for George Passcoe-Watson to use.

  • On the next page -- we're going to cover this later, actually -- the libel actions which you brought against the Sun resulting from publications they promulgated in relation to you in April 2008; is that right?

  • We are going to cover that in a moment. Can I deal with the bottom of the page.

  • The evidence in relation to Mr Kirby.

  • He told you that Rebekah Brooks felt that you were ringleader of the MPs who were investigating phone hacking during 2009. In one sense that was correct, wasn't it?

  • Well, there were a number of MPs who felt very strongly about it. "Ringleader" suggests that I was organising some kind of political group within the committee and that's certainly not the case. I was certainly determined to get to the facts but there wasn't any kind of collective action organised around that.

  • Others have observed that the committee in certain respects divided on party lines, but I'm sure those within your party would not agree that you were leading them. They would all say they were occupying a similarly robust position?

  • I suspect that's true, but also on that committee -- in 2009, the committee was very unified. In fact, we only divided over one small section of the final report to do with the bullying of Matt Driscoll, and we unanimously endorse that report.

  • On the bottom of the page, you deal with some admittedly hearsay evidence coming from Mr Nick Robinson. I put that to Mrs Brooks and she accepted what --

  • Yes. That came as a result of -- I was quite critical of the BBC coverage and I had a candid conversation with Nick Robinson at the gates of the House of Commons where he raised that point with me and again, it's the sort of thing you don't forget.

  • I think I can move on to section 7. This deals with the issue of surveillance and the activities first of all of Mr Derek Webb. The Inquiry has received evidence from him. You received an apology from Mr James Murdoch before the Select Committee in relation to that?

  • Apart from what the Inquiry knows already, can you enlighten us about what the purpose was underlying the surveillance?

  • Well, Neville Thurlbeck, on a number of occasions, alleged that there was an attempt to gather information on committee members in order to -- he uses the word "smear". Effectively, he's alleging a conspiracy to blackmail members of the committee. During our inquiry, the final inquiry we recently published, we tried to get to who was commissioning the surveillance of MPs and the research done on MPs and couldn't quite get to that point with the company. We were told that their own internal investigations were continuing. But as part of that process, there was a disclosure of an email trail that is mentioned in this submission.

  • Can I ask you, please, about -- level with the lower hole punch on 05560, just expand on this, where you say:

    "Recent disclosure from the company shows that the covert surveillance was commissioned by Mazher Mahmood with someone called Conrad acting as an accomplice."

    Can you summarise that for us?

  • Yes, there's an email trail between Mazher Mahmood where he actually alleges I was having an affair. It's not true, obviously. And he has an email conversation with a number of colleagues -- James Mellor and Ian Edmondson -- where they are putting together a team to conduct covert surveillance, and so they commission Derek Webb and take him off the job that he was on before he followed me and then he, Mahmood, says he goes down to the party conference and that he was taking Conrad. I don't know who Conrad is, but he's mentioned in the emails as being part of this.

  • Section 8 now, Mr Watson. You say:

    "Before the 2010 General Election, I made the decision that I was going to get to the facts of the scandal, whatever the consequences. My working assumption was that the company would discredit me in the minds of the public to such an extent that I would be unelectable. The decision to pursue the company was therefore made in the knowledge that this would end my political career."

    In one sense, that wasn't borne out by events since you were re-elected in May 2010.

  • Yes, that's right. When I stood town as a minister, it was because my wife asked me to stand down -- the pressure had become too much -- and you know, I guess I was at a crossroads in life. I'd done with it, I'd had enough of it, I didn't want to be part of that world any more, and was trying to decide what I was going to do. At various points along the way on that year, I thought I was going to stand down from Parliament and just get away from it, and in the end I took a decision to continue and get to the bottom of the inquiry.

  • Thank you. Section 9, Mr Watson. We touched on this already. This is fear amongst MPs. You made the point in a debate on 9 September 2010. Mr Simon Hughes MP made a similar point, and you've told us about a dozen MPs have approached you since then, or have --

  • Yes. At that debate, I -- it was the first time that I'd sort of said in the chamber that I was frightened and scared, and a number of MPs afterwards said, "I'm so pleased you said that, I've felt the same", and I got the distinct sense that this was a very solitary fear that they'd felt they could then share with colleagues, and they weren't the only ones.

  • With the agreement of one of your former colleagues, Mr Martin Salter, he's provided you with material which relates to the Sarah's Law campaign, which you've included in this statement. It speaks for itself, but are there any particular points you would like to bring out for us?

  • This is the testimony of Martin, really, but I think it illustrates that he was prepared to stand out on an issue that he felt very strongly about and then went through what most people would accept is an egregious invasion of his privacy and, you know, it appears that private investigators went to extraordinary lengths to find out about his private affairs in an illegal fashion.

  • Just on one aspect of the complaint that Mr Salter makes, concerned with the Sarah's Law campaign and the naming and shaming of MPs who refused to support the campaign, with the unflattering photographs, that's not uncommon in connection with a quite different aspect of law and order, namely those judges who have been the subject of references by the Attorney General for sentences that are unduly lenient, and the press not infrequently name them when the lists come out. Is that legitimate journalism or does that go too far?

  • I think it goes too far, sir, particularly because judges are in a position where they can't answer back. At least politicians have the ability to express.

  • Actually, I wasn't trying to say it was worse or better. I was merely saying whether the concept of, as it were, naming and shaming those in public positions, MPs or judges or whatever, because they don't necessarily follow the line that the press, that particular journal wants to take, whether that's legitimate journalism or not.

  • It's vulgar and distasteful and it's intimidatory. I guess in a free society we should allow tabloid journalist to make those kind of comments, but in this particular case, with Sarah's Law, I can say that there were a number of politicians who felt very, very uncomfortable with the campaign that wasn't just run in the pages of the newspaper -- there were leaflets handed out and stickers at the Labour Party Conference that the company had commissioned. There were fringe meetings held at the conference. It became a wider political campaign that seemed to me to be mixed up with the PR objectives of the paper, the politics of the paper, as well as the sort of personal branding that the paper was taking, and there are ethical issues within all of that that could be explored, I think.

  • Yes, I understand the point for the reasons I've just identified. Yes.

  • Is there any difference, in your view, between this particular campaign, where obviously feelings might run quite high on both sides, and, if I can give an example of a more politically neutral campaign, the Times cycling campaign which we read about?

  • Well, I don't think I've yet signed the petition for the Times campaign and I've not been attacked in the paper, so I guess -- I mean, the significance of this one is it was an emotive issue. A terrible crime had been committed. There was a very harsh remedy proposed by the paper that much professional opinion was deeply concerned about, and actually the predictions that were made did lead to -- there were vigilante attacks on innocent people as a result of this campaign. So I think it's the sort of -- the particular issue that distinguishes this as being particularly unpleasant.

  • It's the nature of the issue and the way in which the campaign is advanced, I suppose.

    The second example you give -- this is under the heading "Guardian, 11 July 2012", 05563. We've heard evidence from that from the relevant officer -- I think it was Mr Middleton --

  • -- a couple of weeks ago.

  • I guess Martin's issue there is he still didn't know whether the private investigators had been commissioned by News of the World or not, and -- but he couldn't understand what the logic would be had he not been -- what the logic of him being targeted in this way was if it wasn't the News of the World.

  • The next example, Mr Watson, on page 05564. Summarise that for us. It relate to your neighbouring MP, Jane Griffiths.

  • No, this is still Martin Salter's testimony.

  • Everything that's in italics is Mr Salter.

  • That's correct, sir, yes.

  • It probably speaks for itself.

  • Under the tenth section of your evidence, you were asked to provide examples, if you could, of ministers failing to make adequate reform because of personal inhibition or whatever, and you do provide us with two examples. The first is at page 05566. We need to correct the date. The protection of freedoms bill, you moved the amendments on 17 May 2011.

  • I did, yes. It's a typo.

  • It wasn't 2001. Have I correctly understood this? Was this an attempt by primary legislation to bring in substantive amendments to the Data Protection Act, which -- in Section 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008, the self-same amendments could be brought in by secondary legislation?

  • That's correct, yes. Parliament has ducked its responsibility to improve the Data Protection Act and I was using the opportunity of this bill to raise that point and to try and convince the minister that this was an opportunity to put the matter right.

  • You were told that none of the three parties would support your amendments, so that was the end of that?

  • I'm afraid so, yes. I wasn't very convincing.

  • Is that right? Just so that I've understood it, the only purpose of this bill was to get somebody to say, "Right, we'll implement the law"?

  • I was trying to -- being the protection of freedoms bill, which was essentially a bill to try and enact government policy which was rolling back the intrusive state, I thought this was an opportunity for the government to further improve it by putting safeguards in place that would discourage the illegal personal information-gathering market by increasing the penalties, and this is the argument that the Information Commissioner had been making for many years and it did strike me as an omission within the bill that they'd not considered using the bill to do that.

  • But the 2008 Act does amend the law --

  • Through -- yes, but they could have done it within this bill as well. So I was really putting pressure on the minister and trying to convince him that the time was right.

  • Because a statutory instrument is not going to be as complicated a procedure as legislation?

  • That's right. I would hope that ministers looking at your Inquiry, sir, would realise how easy it is to make those amendments.

  • That's obviously one of the things I'm going to be thinking about.

  • The second example you provide us with, Mr Watson, 05568 -- this is the draft damages based agreements regulations which was considered by a statutory instrument committee on 30 March 2010.

  • Just before the last election.

    At this time, MPs from all three of the main parties defeated the minister's proposals, which you say is extremely rare before such a committee. The proposals were what? Could you summarise those for us?

  • This was an instrument to change the CFA arrangements in libel cases, and it had received a mauling in the merits committee in the House of Lords when it was discussed. It was imperfectly drafted and quite flawed, and the effect of it would have been to remove many millions of people from access to justice in libel cases, in the opinion of the members that voted it down, and I think the significance of this was that there was a real sense that there had not been a proper parliamentary discussion, nor a debate in the country about what these measures would actually do, and I selectively quoted from the merits committee in the house of Lord but it really was quite a -- very critical of the measures as they were proposed.

  • I understand. So the feeling was that these were important significant measures, they were worthy of greater debate, and to bring them through this rapid process was inappropriate, and your colleagues agreed?

  • In the last section of your statement, Mr Watson, you really deal with the implied deal point, and you ask us to look at the diaries of Mr Chris Mullin for the period August 1994 to 1998, and of course we can do that. This, to be fair, though, is a commentary on other evidence, isn't it?

  • Can I ask you some general questions. Why did it take so long in your view for politicians and the media to wake up to the hacking story?

  • I think they closed their minds to the potential for a major scandal at one of their key outlets for their message, and I think the personal relations between politicians and people at the company were too fibrous and close, so that they couldn't divorce their objective thinking. And I think they were frightened.

  • So far as it's possible to identify a date -- and it may not be -- when did you conclude that the hacking story, as it were, was a true scandal, in the sense that it extended beyond the one rogue reporter?

  • It's difficult to say there was a Eureka moment, but I certainly think the Nick Davies story in the Guardian that showed there was a huge payment made to Gordon Taylor certainly was a very big signpost. It just did not chime that the royal correspondent of the News of the World would be involved in targeting a sort of quasi-general secretary of the Professional Footballers' Association, so that very clearly gave the impression to me that there was more to this than met the eye. So quite early on, I think.

  • Thank you. Can I raise a couple of points arising out of your recent book, Mr Watson?

  • You have a copy there. I'm afraid I haven't, but it's been summarised for me. On page 9 you make a point -- I paraphrase now -- as I said, you became a junior minister in May 2006 and you began to realise the close relationship between the Prime Minister and News Corp's chief executive. When ministers formulated policy, they often had an eye on Murdoch's response. He was a constant and visible presence in Downing Street.

  • Aside from commentary, what is your evidence for that, please?

  • Well, I just know the -- when you're in the sort of -- I can't give you a hard fact, I'm afraid, Mr Jay, but I know that as a minister, when I discussed issues or policy, there would always be a conversation about: how would this play out? What would -- how would it play with the Sun? I'm ashamed to say my own personal example of that would be -- I made a mistake in a defence question one day. I was asked about the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict and I mistakenly said there would be a 25th anniversary celebration rather than a 25th anniversary commemoration, and by the time I got back to the Ministry of Defence there was a sort of notice on my desk to sign saying -- putting the matter right and a press notice saying I'd meant to say it and calming nerves in the foreign affairs community. I concluded it was overkill by the Civil Service and it probably was, but it did receive a favourable write-up in the Sun the next day, and those are the kind of daily conversations that ministers will have with themselves about the small incidents in their daily lives and how they're reported --

  • But is that the Sun or is it the press generally? In other words, you know, a minister's perfectly entitled to think: "This is the policy that I'm thinking of; how will it play out?", in part as a self-check. "Does this work? Is this going to accord with the public mood?" Or are you saying something different?

  • I'm saying that I can only speak for myself. I can't speak for other ministers.

  • But there was a sense that there was a mystique about the News International stable, that they had unique access to Downing Street and for a minister that was important, and the way you were portrayed in the News International papers was important, and they factored that into their thinking.

  • I mention it only as another large-selling newspaper.

  • I think the point I make about News International being the ultimate floating voter -- with the Daily Mail, there was a consistency to their editorial position and you knew they were constant in their views of MPs in general, and Labour MPs in particular, and so there were no surprises.

  • Well, that might play again as not specific to the Sun but what will the floating voter think about the policy? If you're saying it's not quite that, then I understand, but I just want to press you whether this is because of something specific to News International or rather more general, to floating voter instinct, if you like.

  • I think News International. They were the ones that had the connections, and everyone was aware of it.

  • Page 94 now, Mr Watson. Again, I'm paraphrasing. You have the text there. Were you privately told by Downing Street insiders that Wapping was using its connections to persuade senior politicians to urge you to hold back.

  • This is, I think, now, when you were on the DCMS Select Committee --

  • -- and are not holding back, as it were. But Gordon Brown called you to tell you that Rupert Murdoch had telephoned Tony Blair to tell him to call you off?

  • That's quite a --

  • I should say that he can't remember the call and both Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch have denied it.

  • Well, can you assist us with what your evidence is about it?

  • Well, I can tell you the exact position I was standing when I took the phone call, because the idea that Rupert Murdoch would call Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to phone me is not the sort of thing a backbench MP would forget too easily, and I -- you know, it was within a wider conversation, but I noted it.

  • So what you're telling us is that on the face of it, the circumstances are rather implausible, but because they're implausible, you remember them. Is that fair?

  • Well, they certainly seemed implausible back then. They're looking more plausible week by week. In fact, it was interesting that Peter Mandelson mentioned Rupert Murdoch had raised the matter over dinner. He said -- I've not read his testimony in full yet, but there was clearly a consciousness at the company that this committee was being more troublesome than they thought.

  • If you have a clear recollection of the call, can you remember where you were when you received the call?

  • I can, yes. I was standing on a hill on the edge of the Peak District, trying to keep a signal on my phone.

  • Right. So this was obviously a recreational stroll?

  • That sort of thing, yeah.

  • Okay. It just gives us a --

  • Do we have a date for this?

  • I could try and date it. Off the top of my head, I can't find it, but I can try and hone in on it.

  • Let me just press you a little bit further. Evidently you're on your mobile phone; you've told us that. How does the call come through to you? Was it put through a switchboard? Is it a direct call?

  • No, it was a direct call. Gordon Brown wasn't prime minister when he called me. This was after the election.

  • So it's after the 2010 election?

  • Yes. It would be late 2010 or early 2011, so I can -- if you allow me to find the date, I will do.

  • Okay. I'm just checking whether there are any other matters in your book I'd like specifically to ask you about. Yes, there is reference to another phone call you received in the Peak District on 27 December, I think it's going to be 2010.

  • At page 147. Can you help us with that? Are we in the same place or a different call?

  • We're in the same place, sir, yes. If I can find the -- is this the IT insider?

  • Yeah. Would you like me to explain about that call?

  • The substance of the call is going to be -- it's too delicate for our purposes because it will bear on the police investigation, but I think what I'm trying to do is to identify (a) whether this is the same call as the call you've just been referring to, whether it's the same holiday --

  • No, it's not -- I spent a lot of time in that neck of the woods and the person -- it is a different person who made contact with me, having read a newspaper article regarding a letter I wrote to the Information Commissioner, and the significance for me was it was someone who was familiar with the IT infrastructure at News International, and I was left with the impression that there may be more evidence available than previously thought. So it was quite a moment for me because it -- at that point, it seemed to me that the trail was going cold.

  • There are many questions I might ask you out of sheer curiosity, but I'm afraid it won't be possible to, given the --

  • I think there are limits to the extent to which you can indulge your curiosity, Mr Jay.

  • I'm afraid there are, so I'm just going to have to ask you to put the rest of the book down, Mr Watson. But thank you nonetheless.

    I've been asked to put to you questions by other core participants. You understand the procedure. You're a core participant yourself so of course you understand it. But from one core participant, I have two questions. First of all: did you ever give stories to Ian Kirby and receive payment for them?

  • Did you leak information, confidential information, from the CMS committee to the Guardian?

  • Have you provided any information to Mr Nick Davies of the Guardian?

  • Okay. From another core participant -- you've been warned of these questions in line with our standard procedures -- what was the nature of your relationship with Mr Damian McBride?

  • We worked at -- for Gordon Brown. I didn't know him that well. He was the press guy, I was a minister, so I would occasionally socialise with him but that was about it.

  • I think it's right to say, but you'll correct me if I'm wrong, that he was a civil servant and not a special adviser; is that so?

  • I -- I don't know, actually. I can't remember.

  • How frequent were your interactions with him?

  • I would see him about once a week in the -- you know, we would bump into each other. I had no direct line management responsibility for him and I didn't share his responsibilities, and then there would be the occasional social event, probably once a month, that I would see him.

  • He, of course, was very close to Mr Brown. You were quite close to Mr Brown, presumably, weren't you?

  • Yes, I guess you could say that, yes.

  • In terms of identifying camps, you were in one camp, clearly the same camp as Mr McBride and Mr Brown?

  • There were just different responsibilities, and, you know, on the press side -- you know, if you're a minister, you have a day job and you don't really cross paths that often. I mean, the portrayal was that there was this kind of tight group of people around Gordon Brown who sort of behaved collectively as a homogenous group. It wasn't that way at all.

  • Did you text or email him with any frequency?

  • Rarely. I would probably get one or two texts, one or two emails a month, but not a lot at all.

  • Can you assist us in general terms with the subject matter of these communications?

  • It would be logistics to do with Gordon Brown's movements perhaps or something to do with a Labour Party event. No hard and fast rules to it. Maybe sort of whether there's going to be a meet-up after work, something like that. Nothing significant.

  • Did you have regular meetings during your time in government with Mr McBride and Mr Balls to plan media strategy?

  • Did you have any meetings with them to plan media strategy?

  • No. There was a weekly grid meeting where ministers were invited or I was invited as a Cabinet Office minister, and Damian McBride would have been invited to that, but I rarely went to those meetings. I frankly found them very tedious so used to hardly ever turn up, and to be honest, I'd been so bruised by the press that I avoided -- the portrayal is not as it is, but I avoided most press activities as best I could.

  • Did you or anyone who worked with you have any knowledge of the plan to establish the Red Rag website?

  • Did you or anyone who worked with you discuss establishing a website to counter what was seen as the influence of the centre right website, Guido Fawkes?

  • No, but there was a lot of discussion at the time about the Labour Party's online strategy because it was felt that there was a sort of plan by our opponents to work in an arm's length removed way with sites like Guido Fawkes, but there was no discussion to plan an alternative.

  • Was there a sense then that your opponents were doing better with the blogosphere and it was time that you improved your act, as it were?

  • That's right, yeah. That was the general view at the time.

  • What is the nature of your relationship with the website Political Scrapbook?

  • I know the guy -- the young guy that runs it. I have no relationship with it in terms of management or anything else.

  • Maybe I should have asked the prior question: what is the website Political Scrapbook?

  • It's a centre left-leaning satirical website that does, you know, gossipy tabloid-style stories.

  • So how often are you in contact with those who run that website?

  • I've probably met them once in the last year, maybe twice, at the Labour Party Conference.

  • Have you provided information to them for their use?

  • There's reference -- I haven't actually seen the relevant speech but I'll ask the question anyway. There was a speech made by Mr Len McCluskey to the Labour Party Conference. I don't know whether you know what that is a reference to, but the question is: did Mr McCluskey share that speech with you before making it?

  • On one occasion, you objected to media reporting of your visit to Gordon Brown. You maintain the visit was purely social and you were dropping off a particular DVD. Did you discuss any political matters at all during your visit?

  • No, and just to put the matter right, the allegation is that I delivered a Postman Pat DVD for Gordon Brown's children. It's a fact that's been repeated many times. I didn't do that. The present was a Baby Gro for the new baby, and I didn't discuss politics. It was a purely social visit and was very brief.

  • Okay. So we're back in 2006, are we?

  • That's correct, yes. I think Rebekah Brooks may have said that when she was in front of you, but -- I've never bothered to put the matter right because it's to trivial, but ...

  • I'm pleased we've at least sorted that out. Yes.

  • Did you discuss the subsequently published round-robin letter which called for Tony Blair's resignation at that visit?

  • Did you discuss that letter with Mr Ed Balls?

  • No. After I'd resigned, there's obviously been lots of discussion since, but not before, no.

  • I've decided not to ask the last two questions.

  • That's your choice, Mr Jay. You're responsible for conducting this.

  • Okay.

    Can I ask you, please, about the future, Mr Watson?

  • You touch on this in your evidence. We passed over it but we're coming back to it now. You, I think, see a greater role for the ICO; is that correct?

  • Yes, sir. I think one of the issues you've -- that people have been contending with this is on notions of personal privacy in the age of information abundance in the digital age, and as a society we've not reached a settled view on that, nor will we, I think, for some years to come, and it strikes me that there is a role for the various commissioners that in some way regulate the privacy in this country. It's not just the ICO, but there's the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, the Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Information and the new Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

    It strikes me that there's a role for wrapping those functions up into a single body that could be a privacy commissioner and they would have the same powers but not more, other than an annual obligation to report to Parliament on the illegal personal information market so that that can be monitored, but they could also do research and policy about notions of privacy and help provide social policy-makers form their decisions.

  • That's a far more wide-ranging view of life than is encompassed by the work of this Inquiry.

  • Yes, sir. It's -- I hope you don't mind we observing, but I think one of the dilemmas that your witnesses have is they have a different view of what is private and what is public, and that's partly because of the sort of disruptive power of the Internet. We have a generation below me that -- their digital footprint has been sort of left for eternity now in a way that no other generation has had to contend with, and so we're going to be wrestling with these notions of privacy for years to come and there isn't really a body -- a go-to organisation that is advising Parliament on public opinion on this and changing opinions, and it strikes me that any future-proofing might -- of reform might want to explore this route.

    I'm not saying give more powers to these commissioners; I'm just saying make them more coherent.

  • I understand that, and it's very interesting, but if one looks at the powers that are operated and available to some of those whom you've mentioned, they are really to do with the way in which the state can interfere with the privacy of individuals, maybe the authorisation of interception of communications, which is governed by a very substantial piece of law, or the way in which there are checks on that, and retention of DNA fingerprints.

    All that material is one body of law which I recognise, but -- and I see the value of it because of the digital footprint that you've just mentioned, but it is rather different, isn't it, from the way in which society should control, regulate, be concerned with invasions of privacy that are not state-generated but press-generated?

  • Yes, sir. I think they're different, but I think a citizen very often wouldn't necessarily distinguish between an intrusion of privacy by a state or non-state actor, and my real point is I think the idea of privacy is changing in the minds of the public, and where these commissioners are wrestling with those notions, it seems coherent to set them in one place so that those policy discussions can be more closely centred.

  • It may be, but if I just pick up the point you've just made, the state can authorise an interception of communication and the statute will identify the circumstances in which that can be authorised. Then there's a surveillance commissioner to check that the thing is being done appropriately. But that's the state controlling state activity. It is rather different, isn't it, from the control of non-state actors?

  • Yes, it's completely different, but the requirement of the state to do that requires public buy-in and confidence from the public, and at the moment I don't think the public are well-served by policy-makers who have these conflicting demands on their time, and like Parliament has recently rationalised the Tribunal service or the Human Rights Commission, wrapping the different -- it's linked bodies together, and I think it would be useful if they were all wrapped into one.

    I'm not saying that there are totally different requirements on each of the commissioners or separate responsibilities, but putting them in one place might be useful.

  • I see the rationality for that argument. I'm just not sure how it fits into the press, because the test will always be different.

  • I think a part of the reason -- when future policy-makers require good research and advice, a body that becomes professional and skilled at dealing with notions of privacy I think is going to be useful to us, and can also actually help the press. I mean, the ICO -- I mean, I very strongly feel that the press deserve a more powerful Freedom of Information Act so that they can identify where politicians are failing to give them proper information, and one of the things that your Inquiry has yielded, by way of example on that, we managed to map out the relations -- the number of meetings between politicians and executives of newspaper groups, partly as a result of the Freedom of Information Act, but it took the 30-year Cabinet papers rule to know about the Rupert Murdoch with Margaret Thatcher in 1981. Had we had the Freedom of Information Act in 1981, we would have known in 1982 that that meeting took place and public policy would have been better served by that.

    The Freedom of Information Act is flawed in many ways. There is a ministerial veto that I would remove, and there is also -- there isn't a statutory obligation to handle internal appeals in a timely manner.

  • Mr Watson, I quite understand that too, and these are absolutely sensible thoughts for a politician to have and to take into the political debate. But in the context of what I'm trying to do, is that not extending the envelope somewhat?

  • It might be, sir, but if you're looking at the conduct of journalism and ethics, then part of the reason they've been giving you that they had need to be so intrusive in unusual ways into the lives of politicians is politicians never give them any information, and the Freedom of Information Act is a way that journalism -- it's a tool of their trade now. They use it every day, and there are suggestions that the Act itself will be watered down, so I think if we want to support good, ethical journalism, we need a legislative framework that allows journalists open access to public -- government information.

  • So this part of your evidence is really directed to opening up to the press rather more information than it presently has?

  • All right. Well, I have the point.

  • The second general point, Mr Watson, where you refer to the need for an independent regulator to replace the PCC, by "independent", you mean what?

  • I think with independent -- arm's length removed from government, with some statutory powers. I think the -- I think the simple task of that body should be to oblige an editor to put a matter right when they make a mistake or get it wrong. I understand the remedy is far more complex than that but the outcome we want to be pretty simple.

    Time and time again, I know the Inquiry's heard that politicians -- we shouldn't have politicians regulating the press. I've not yet met a politician who actually wants that task, but I do think --

  • It is interesting that, because I've heard two politicians who have said, "Oh, yes, there would be lots who'd only be too pleased to get involved."

  • And then I've also heard somebody say, "No, no, I've never heard of anybody like that."

  • "I've never met an MP who would want to do that." But I do accept that there is a fear in the newspaper industry that politicians would like to, in some way, close down their assertive line of journalism and they do require reassurances, in whatever model replaces the PCC, I hope, that that could never happen.

  • Okay. The third general point, the need, which others have identified, to recalibrate, rebalance the relationship between politicians and the press. It's implicit in your evidence that you share the view that there is such a need, but how does one achieve such an end?

  • Ultimately, this is down to the conduct of individuals but I do think there are ways you can shape that relationship. Certainly transparency is one way, and I've mentioned improvement to the Freedom of Information Act and the way that government presents information. At the moment, ministers publish their diaries every quarter but they're not centrally published. Information is very inaccessible. And frankly, having been on the inside, I think that's probably deliberate, to make it harder for people to map out those relationships. They could very easily remedy that, and it shouldn't take an Inquiry of this stature to force them into it. You could just put the matter right tomorrow if you wanted to.

  • Do you do that simply by centralising the publication of meetings and the like?

  • I think that's very possible to do, sir, and yes, I would. You know, people make -- I think the Civil Service are worried about factual errors and making mistakes that are then exploited. Frankly, if we get the model right, yes, there may be some mistakes, but there will be much greater transparency and that would go a long way to restoring public confidence in the relationship between politicians and the press, I think.

  • Those were all my questions.

  • Thank you very much. Mr Watson, I appreciate --

  • Sir, there are a few matters which I'd like to deal with in Mr Watson's statement.

  • They're fairly brief. They are mostly things which Mr Watson doesn't really have first-hand knowledge of, so it may be easier if I just say them and if he wants to add to his evidence in the light of what I say, he may do so.

  • Have you passed them through Mr Jay?

  • Mr Jay, I think, knows our position on these but I don't think they are sensibly --

  • Speak and we'll see how we get on.