First, a confession: I have bought Tom Watson and Martin Hickman’s book Dial M For Murdoch. This constitutes a confession on my part because, while recognising he has faults, I admire Rupert Murdoch. Still, plenty of people who say they hate Murdoch and his newspapers secretly rejoice when they find an abandoned copy of The Sun on the train. So let’s call my purchase of Watson’s anti-Murdoch book my inversion of that.
I first noticed Labour MP Watson when he conspired against Tony Blair towards the end of the latter’s reign. More recently, he has been an obsessive campaigner against Murdoch’s News International. Given that he has targeted two men I admire, and the fact his anti-press obsession followed his exposure during the expenses scandal, I am no fan of Watson. In February, he complained on Twitter about how former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie had shouted at him on Radio 4′s Today Programme. The audio of the interview establishes that MacKenzie had scarcely raised his voice. As Watson shows in his book, he has a tendency to over-dramatise.
So, what is his much-anticipated book actually like? In the Preface he explains that, ‘I come into the book myself from time to time’, as does his co-author. ‘But…we didn’t want to overemphasise our roles, and for that reason it is written in third person: I am not “me” or “Tom” but “Tom Watson”.’ Ah yes, referring to yourself in third person – a monument of authorial humility.
This device allows Watson to interrupt the true narrative of the book with such moments of meekness as: ‘By this stage, friends had been telling Watson: “You’ve done a good job, it’s time to move on.’” That comes just three pages after Watson writes about a ‘clear-sighted’ letter an admirer had sent him, before quoting the letter in its full, sycophantic – and narratively unnecessary – glory. Even when recounting incidents involving him that are pertinent, Watson needlessly throws in what he had eaten for lunch that day, or which band he had seen live in concert that night.
I expected his book to either leave me disliking him more, or maybe, just maybe, to spark a spectacular about-turn, making me suddenly admire him. The truth was it did neither – it just made me feel a bit sad for him. Due to his tireless emphasis of his role in the story, the reader is bombarded with evidence that Watson has vulnerable emotions.
For instance, he tells how, in 2009, when he was erroneously implicated by The Sun in a smearing of senior Tories, people who knew him became ‘anxious about [his] state of mind’. He told one fellow MP that even though he was ‘completely innocent’ of what The Sun had accused him, he intended to ‘resign anyway… just to show them’. Later, he writes that when a News International journalist spread a rumour that he was about to check into rehab because of heavy drinking, ‘stung by the comment, Watson stopped drinking for six months’.
He admits that during Christmas 2010 he often rose at 5am to embark on walks in the Peak District, during which he would phone his friends, to breathlessly relate to them the latest minutiae of his anti-Murdoch campaign. He writes how his friends ‘became deeply worried about his mental health’, feeling he was ‘bordering on obsessional’. He became gripped by the idea that he might be assassinated and now blames the saga for the breakdown of his marriage.
Watson’s fans – and he has many – will love this book, which is for the most part engagingly written. His fans will continue to laud him for his courage and tenacity in taking on the Murdoch empire. Given how the tabloid media has crushed some who have attempted to stand up to it, even many of his admirers are flabbergasted by Watson’s long-running crusade. He must be crazy, people say.
Just this week, there he was quoting Bob Dylan as he delivered his verdict at the Commons Culture Select Committee. In the wake of that investigation’s conclusion he shows no sign of dropping his crusade. I can’t help wondering where this will end for him. In the form of the Murdoch empire, he has taken on a formidable foe. Ultimately it might just prove that Watson’s biggest foe is Watson himself.