Book review. Dial M for Murdoch, by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman which appears in this week's edition of the New Statesman
IN OCTOBER 2011, Tom Watson entered my house an MP. An hour later, he emerged a best selling author.
The incendiary claim that News International had ordered News of the World reporters to spy on MPs to find unsavoury facts about their private lives is one of the few new revelations in this book.
To a newsman like me, it is a very useful and - by and large accurate - reference book of the unraveling of the phone hacking saga.
It's what we in the trade call, "a cuttings job" - ie put together by piecing lots of information found in a good newspaper cuttings library.
The result is the first worthy and substantial account of what happened prior to and then after the discovery of the now infamous “For Neville” email.
It was an email which was intended for me. And it ended up closing a 168-year-old newspaper.
So the subject matter which Tom Watson discusses is of huge importance to a lot of people – especially the eight million readers and the 270 journalists who worked there.
As a reference book it does a good job. But there is little insider information to let the reader know precisely how the crisis unfolded within the walls of Wapping.
We learn a lot about the toll it took on Mr Watson, his marriage and his mental state.
But it was Mr Watson’s visit to my home last year which provides him with the book’s most dramatic revelation.
The information was given to him confidentially and should not have been made public. However, our quarrel over that need not detain us here.
Realising I had handed him his best new angle, he printed it and his book hit the headlines.
And the public now knows that at the height of the scandal, News of the World reporters were despatched to spy round the clock on the members of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
The objective was to find as much embarrassing sleaze on as many members as possible in order to blackmail them into backing off from its highly probing inquiry into the phone hacking scandal.
It was a plan hatched not by the News of the World but by several executives at News International – up the corridor in ‘Deepcarpetland’ as the area staffed by managers and pen pushers was euphemistically called.
And it failed because the reporters dithered and procrastinated. It wasn’t journalism, it was corporate espionage. Ten days later, the plot was hastily cancelled.
Another startling revelation is that the office of News International CEO Rebekah Brooks was bugged in June last year as the hacking crisis reached fever pitch.
Watson says: “According to one well-placed News Corp source, security staff were ordered to record the times of Brooks’ entry to and exit from Thomas More Square [News International's HQ] and cleaners were warned to avoid disturbing listening devices placed under the table and by her computer in her office.”
I frankly doubt this claim. The ‘well placed source’ isn’t seemingly sufficiently well placed to tell us who authorised this bugging.
Whether it was News International, the News of the World or the police, none of these institutions would have been so half-witted as to inform the cleaners. A friendly bunch of ladies, mainly from Bermondsey, who, how shall we say, were rather ‘chatty’, to say the very least.
With its hint of Hitchockian melodrama in the title, the subject matter certainly lives up to its darkly portentious front cover, rattling out tales of bugging, hacking, spying, blackmail and – en passant – a murder.
It also records in minute detail Labour MP Tom Watson’s lonely and obsessive quest to crack the phone hacking scandal, the long walks on the moors, the long letters to officials, the long wait in wilderness.
This is where Watson and his co author Independent journalist Martin Hickman lose their lightness of touch and the book becomes less of a thrilling read and more of a journal of record, albeit an important one at that.
It also strains to make sinister connections between the former editor Andy Coulson and a private investigator Jonathan Rees, a man who had served time for conspiring to pervert the course of justice and facing a murder charge.
The bold claim is made: “....Coulson had worked with a notorious private investigator at the News of the World after the man’s release from a long prison term for conspiring to pervert the course of justice.”
I don’t think Andy Coulson had ever heard of Rees, let alone worked with him. He was hired from time to time by another executive and I wouldn’t expect an editor to be familiar with the antecedents of every one of the thousands of people who passed through our books. Others may take a different view.
The book is also littered with inaccuracies. David Cameron was able to get close to the Times editor, James Harding because he knew him from their Eton days. He didn’t. Harding went to St Paul’s. I was caught fornicating with a Dorset couple. I wasn’t. Their allegations were investigated by management and the Press Complaints Commission and I was exonerated. A video of my exploits appeared on the internet, “to the amusement of colleagues”. It didn’t. I live in a semi-detached house. I don’t.
A book can only withstand a certain amount of careless disregard for the facts before a credibility tipping point is reached and this one manages to stay on the right side of the reader’s trust.
But the central claim of the book is barely justified – “Rupert Murdoch was not running a normal business, but a shadow state”. It’s eye-catching but like most hyperbole, deep and meaningless.
We are given no feeling or evidence to back up this bold advert on the back cover.
Instead, running in tandem with Watson’s dogged quest, we are presented with a detailed account of how the Guardian’s Nick Davies conducted an investigation which finally exploded News International’s ‘rogue reporter’ defence.
And the bullish determination of lawyer Mark Lewis to discover the scale of hacking through the courts is also given due weight.
The profiles of the News of the World characters are weakly penned and vague too, showing a serious lack of insider contact.
This absence leaves the reader with very little sense of the desperate rearguard action going on behind the scenes at the News of the World as events spiralled out of its control. There is lots of very dogged determination from very dogged people. But the effects are unseen, leaving the drama incomplete and slow paced.
But as a journal of record it is sound and worthy.
Dial M for Murdoch is only half the story because only half the story has been told.
Its sequel will be the explosive revelations in court, should any trials take place.
And the drama of ‘Cuttings Job II’ will ensure this book is swiftly remaindered.
For the moment, it’s the only cogent book on the most important media story since the birth of newspapers and has every chance of becoming a best seller.
But we are promised Graham Greene. What we get is Agatha Christie. And after 328 pages, we still don’t know whodunit.
Dial M for Murdoch is published by Penguin with a RRP of £20