There is a long and distinguished history of people — usually journalists — observing and commenting upon the politics of other nations. It is what I am doing right now. It is quite another matter for a foreigner to come to a country that is about to have an exercise in democracy and actively to engage in the debate — a debate in which he or she has no vote and from which he or she will not directly feel the consequences.
That is but one reason why eyebrows should be raised at the intervention over the last few days by British Labour MP Tom Watson into Australia’s campaign. He claimed on his arrival down under that he had not come to play a direct role in the political debate. However, he soon looked as though he was auditioning for one, advising his co-religionists in the Australian Labor Party to confront Rupert Murdoch and his editorial campaign against them head-on.
We back in Blighty know Watson well. He doesn’t much like journalists, nor does he like the media — unless it is being obedient to his own sectarian interests, in which case we appear to be tolerable — and he positively loathes Murdoch and his empire. (For the avoidance of doubt, I should declare my lack of interest: apart from a few freelance articles for the Times of London nearly 30 years ago, I have never worked for Murdoch.) He has written a not-especially good book on that subject (wittily entitled Dial M for Murdoch), and is now taking his campaign against Murdoch around the world. He’s been to America, and now he’s in Australia (where he has appeared regularly on ABC radio and television), and he doesn’t much like what he sees.
This is not because the Murdoch press in Australia is or has been engaging in some of the alleged practices for which some of its journalists and former journalists in Britain are shortly to face trial — hacking mobile telephones, seeking to cause misconduct by officials in public office and conspiring to pervert the course of justice, the Crown Prosecutor will claim. It is because Murdoch has had the temerity to ask some of his newspapers in Australia, notably the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and the Courier-Mail in Brisbane — to come out fervently against the re-election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.
Had Watson bothered to consult any opinion polls he would have noticed that the Australian people are themselves becoming increasingly fervent in their opposition to three more years of Labor. Watson, however, has preferred to get on his high horse, and argue that Murdoch has a business interest in backing Tony Abbott over Rudd. The Pope, as they say, is Catholic: but so what?
In 1997, 2001 and 2005 Murdoch had some or all of his British newspapers back Tony Blair over his Conservative rivals in three successive elections. As Watson — first elected to his West Bromwich seat in 2001 on Blair’s coat tails — will well recall, Murdoch didn’t back Blair for charitable purposes. And the support of Murdoch’s big-selling daily, the Sun, with a huge readership among blue-collar voters that had at previous elections delivered much of its client base to the Conservative party, was crucial to Labour’s victory. Watson had no problems with News International in those days.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider Tom Watson’s own ethical record, just so the Australian people know the measure of the man who would help them make up their minds in the forthcoming election.
Watson, who had been an active student union politician, was in charge of Labour’s successful fight in a by-election in Birmingham Hodge Hill in 2004, where the Liberal Democrats accused Labour of dirty tactics, including a campaign leaflet that said ‘Labour is on your side — the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers’.
The leftish Guardian newspaper christened Watson a ‘Top Toadie’, but his toadying worked. In 2006 he became a junior defence minister. He survived just four months before being forced to resign for signing a letter calling for the resignation of Blair, who had given him his job. Gordon Brown, in whose interests this ‘disloyal, discourteous and wrong’ act (according to Blair) was carried out, rewarded his toady when he took power in 2007, and made him a minister in the Cabinet Office.
Out of office after Labour’s defeat in 2010, Watson turned his attention to News. He was loathed by a large section of the parliamentary party who had never wanted Brown to lead them, and his attack on a leading hate-figure of the left — Murdoch — helped rehabilitate him. In the autumn of 2009, shortly before Labour’s defeat, the Sun had suddenly come out for the Conservative party, which had shocked and outraged Labour’s leaders, who had thought the marriage was for life. Watson’s attack on News wasn’t just about ideology, or motivated by legitimate moral outrage at some of the things the company is alleged to have done: it was about revenge.
As the Murdoch empire sank in public esteem, so Watson gloried in his high-profile assaults on it. He sat on the House of Commons’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee, and took every opportunity to grandstand about the alleged iniquities of News. He likened Murdoch to a mafia boss, which went down frightfully well. He was rewarded by being made deputy chair of the Labour party, and its campaign co-ordinator for the 2015 election. However, as in his ministerial job, this strategic role did not last long. Watson had once shared a flat with a union boss, Len McCluskey, whose union has given Labour £7.5 million since 2010.
McCluskey wanted one of his henchwomen, Karie Murphy, made Labour’s candidate in the safe seat of Falkirk: and she was. Murphy happened also to be Watson’s office manager. Watson was accused of interfering to secure her selection; the constituency party was placed in special measures, Murphy was defenestrated and the police were called in. Watson resigned as Labour’s election campaign co-ordinator. The police investigation continues.
This is the man who goes to a foreign country and interferes in its election campaign, attacking the ethical conduct of a media organisation. Before accepting Watson as an incarnation of Mother Teresa in a suit, and taking any notice of his moral lectures, Australia would do well to reflect upon Watson’s difficulties with ethics in a career in politics on the other side of the globe.
Simon Heffer is political columnist of the Daily Mail.