A few years ago, the Aye Write literary festival in Glasgow invited me to discuss press freedom with Tom Watson. I thought it would be a standard debate until I arrived at the hall and learned it was a set-up.
On one side, there was your humble correspondent, still making the battered old argument that free countries can never allow state censorship. On the other was Watson, his fellow Hacked Off campaigner Brian Cathcart, Christopher Jefferies, the retired English teacher, who was falsely accused of murder by the tabloids, and who, understandably, became a fervent Hacked Off supporter thereafter, and one Ruth Wishart. The organisers had told me she was a journalist, which perked me up considerably, but she turned out to also be a member of Lord McCluskey’s inquiry into the Scottish press, whose recommendations were so authoritarian even Alex Salmond rejected them
Four against one, then. An audience justifiably outraged that the Murdoch and Mirror groups had broken the law and made the lives of innocents a misery. A genuine victim in Christopher Jefferies. And, in Tom Watson, a heroic politician who had fought the unelected Murdoch power.
What use was my argument that in the birthplace of Milton, Mill and Orwell you cannot allow a state-sponsored regulator that would impose crippling fines on newspapers, even if they were telling the truth in the public interest?
As it was, I didn’t need it. I looked along the packed platform and thought: “Now I have you, Watson.”
The meeting was a sham, I said. Four against one, what kind of balance was that? The organisers had no right to claim they were staging a “debate”. The word implied an equality of arms that was not on offer. Watson and Hacked Off had started with the best of causes and ended like the tabloids they deplored. They bellowed from their bully pulpit. They loaded the dice and played every trick they could think of to prevent an honest argument.
The Glasgow audience began to turn. At least some of its members realised that Watson did not play fair.
It can feel ridiculous to talk of the British sense of fair play. What is Britain? Scotland is half gone. Northern Ireland is a world apart and the English don’t know who they are. As for fairness, where can you find it in a country where every species of charlatan and loudmouth flourishes? But like rocks at low tide, the national sense of fair play can emerge to wreck the ambitions of those who would sail over it. The presumption of innocence, sympathy for the underdog and a respect for impartial public services don’t emerge often enough. When they do, they are devastating and Labour’s deputy leader has rammed into all three.
The hacking scandal began with the just convictions of journalists and editors, who had invaded the privacy of celebrities, only to degenerate into draconian prosecutions. The police and Crown Prosecution Service began arresting Sun journalists and their sources for revealing information the government would rather have kept quiet. Only because tabloid journalists are so hated did the attempt to seal off the state from scrutiny fail to become the national, and indeed international, scandal it ought to have been.
It is as if the British establishment has a purge and binge-eating disorder. It fails to digest crimes for years, then goes berserk when its negligence is exposed and chews up every innocent it can stuff into its jaws.
It is just possible that Watson is not gorging himself on a paedophile witch-hunt, and will come out of it with his reputation intact. Possible, but looking less likely by the day. Watson never realised it, but a clock started ticking the moment he claimed there was a clique of high-level paedophiles who raped and murdered children.
In authentic paedophile cases, investigators rarely have trouble finding witnesses. Private Eye and the Rochdale Alternative Press had dozens of men coming forward in the late 1970s to say that Cyril Smith had abused them as boys. After ITV unmasked Jimmy Savile, scores of women described what he had done to them. It was the same story with Charles Napier, who was jailed for 13 years for molesting dozens of public-school boys in the 1970s and 1980s. (And to offer a fairness towards Tom Watson he rarely extends to others, I should add that he helped find the witnesses who sent Napier down.)
After Watson’s allies at Exaro-News “exposed” the murderous cabal of Westminster paedophiles led by Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor and Edward Heath, and operating from Dolphin Square, the hundreds of witnesses who make authentic accusations of historic child abuse stick have been conspicuous by their absence. Last week’s BBC documentary on the police inquiry was old school: very balanced, very British, very fair – and all the more devastating for that. Hardly any witnesses had gone to the police, it told us. The one checkable fact in the stories of the handful that did was that the politicians had organised the murder of a boy in a hit-and-run accident. It was false.
Even the police, who have behaved shockingly during this investigation, did not feel they had reasonable grounds to interview Brittan. Watson was undeterred. He showed no respect for the old rules that say men in his position shouldn’t politicise police inquiries or for the presumption of innocence.
As for sympathising with the underdog, Brittan was in the last stages of terminal cancer. Watson nevertheless pressured the director of public prosecutions into ordering the police to question Brittan on spurious allegations of rape. In the process, he let loose a hubbub of lurid press speculation.
When he hounded a dying man to his grave, Watson sank lower than the News of the World reporters he and Hacked Off once fought. However invasive and prurient their scoops, they were at least true. Unless convincing witnesses come forward, you will not be able to say the same about Watson’s “exposé”.
Soon, he may hear the hum I heard in Glasgow grow to a roar. “This man has no limits,” it says. “He rigs arguments, he doesn’t play fair. He only half apologises when he is forced to and even then he doesn’t mean it.” Public opinion in Britain, which tolerates so much, can still turn in an instant when it believes charges like these and destroy the careers of those who cross its red lines.
In all fairness, and on the balance of evidence before us, I would say that Tom Watson’s career deserves to be destroyed right now.