Tom Watson: The Man Who Humbled Murdoch

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Parbul TV via Reuters TV / Reuters

Labour party MP Tom Watson questions News Corp executives Rupert Murdoch and his son James Murdoch at a parliamentary hearing on phone hacking in London on July 19, 2011

At first Rupert Murdoch did what he always had done in challenging times: he smiled for the cameras and worked to assert control. But nine days after shuttering his British tabloid, the News of the World, the once unassailable tycoon acknowledged this was no ordinary crisis. "This is the most humble day of my life," he told a committee of British parliamentarians on July 19, appearing startlingly vulnerable even before the shaving-cream pie flew. And Murdoch's travails are far from over, as investigations into his companies continue on both sides of the Atlantic. When the bruised colossus gazes out from his New York City penthouse at the world he so recently bestrode, he may well ask himself where it all started to go wrong. He knows some of the answers — the proven cases of phone hacking by people on his company's dime, for example; and the suspicions of corrupt payments to police by some of his journalists. Yet one event, decades before the widespread use of cellphones and two years before he bought the News of the World, also proved decisive. On Jan. 8, 1967, Murdoch's most dogged problem came into being, at Jessop Hospital in the northern England industrial city of Sheffield.

The baby, just 6 lbs 11 oz at birth, would grow into a soft-spoken political heavyweight, since 2001 the MP for the befuddlingly named constituency of West Bromwich East. Tom Watson has played a pivotal role in the humbling of Murdoch and earned, in the process, an unlikely fan club. "Tom Watson ... HERO!" tweeted singer George Michael as Watson led the forensic grilling of the senior Murdoch and his son James at the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. More than one excited TV anchor compared the MP to Perry Mason, the attorney described by another fictional character in the series as "a better detective than you are a lawyer. When you turn your mind to the solution of a crime, you ferret out the truth."

Watson has certainly ferreted away at the allegations of hacking with notably greater enthusiasm than Scotland Yard. Detractors might even accuse him of being a better detective than he is a politician. He nearly stood down at last year's election but says, "part of the reason I stayed on was this unfinished business." But distracting though his detective work may be, Watson's constituents seem happy enough with the way he discharges his functions as an MP, electing him three times with substantial, if falling, majorities.

He was an effective minister too, though caught up in the factionalism that helped to undermine the Labour Party's grip on power. A first stint in government as a defense minister under Tony Blair ended with Watson's resignation after he urged Blair to stand down in favor of Gordon Brown, Blair's long-time colleague and rival. Watson returned to the front benches during Brown's premiership, but resigned his post as Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office and Minister for Digital Engagement in 2009, using Twitter to break the news. "The pressure on my young family has been painful and I do not want to ask them to endure it any longer," he tweeted.

Watson had been at the center of a tabloid storm. The experience changed the course of his life — and of Murdoch's. In 2008, the mass market Mail on Sunday ran an article linking Watson to a plot to plant unfounded and damaging rumors about leading members of the Conservative opposition. Although the author of the piece withdrew the allegation even before the story ran (there had been such a plot but Watson was not privy to it), other newspapers followed, including the Sun, the News of the World's stable mate at Murdoch's British subsidiary News International. The story went big during the Easter break, while the MP was staying in a budget hotel in Cornwall. "I'd sneak out in the morning and get the papers very early, because I'd not slept," says Watson. "And on the day I read [the Sun's article], I just burst into tears. My energy and morale was falling through the floor."

When the family returned home, they found themselves under siege by reporters. After his young son responded to a knock at the door by hiding from "another nasty man," Watson decided he had to relinquish his frontbench post for the sake of his family and informed Brown. "He said, 'Look, if you go, they've won. You've given in.' And I said, 'I am giving in.'" The MP looked forward to a quieter life on the backbenches. "I wasn't going to be in the thick of it," says Watson. "I'd do longer-term, deeper analysis on narrower issues of policy, which is actually what I enjoy."

When Watson stood for election to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he expected to focus on matters such as the digital economy and arts policy. Instead, as Britain's Guardian newspaper produced evidence suggesting that phone hacking had gone much wider than was suggested by the original 2005-6 police investigation into the interception of voicemail messages left for Princes William and Harry and their household, the committee reopened its earlier inquiry into press standards. News International immediately demanded that Watson be removed from the committee because he had "a financial interest," says the MP: "The financial interest being I was defending my rights because of false allegations about me in their newspaper." He had been pursuing the Sun for defamation and says "by the time I got on the committee they'd accepted liability and they'd put a retraction in the paper. But they'd not settled damages or apologized in open court, which is what I'd asked for."

Watson won his battle to remain on the committee. And he had found the cause that animates him. "The switch came on" with the attempt to remove him, he says. "It was the moment I thought, [they] will never ever go away. They are just relentless, and not only were they relentless, they were guilty of criminality. [News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, on retainer to the paper, were convicted of hacking the phones in 2007.] So I just thought there and then, I'm going to get to the bottom of this."

He emerged as a Perry Mason or parliamentary Sherlock Holmes. Elementary for Watson? The impulse to keep asking questions, to keep digging, does seem to come naturally to the MP, who kept the issue alive in the committee and on the floor of the House of Commons until allegations that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's mobile had been hacked catapulted the scandal into the headlines. A Labour Party loyalist to his bones, Watson will not have been insensible to the side benefit of his campaign, namely embarrassing Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who chose to appoint former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications and during an emergency session of parliament on July 20 finally expressed regret "for the furor [the appointment] has caused."

Yet Labour politicians schmoozed the Murdoch press with at least as much enthusiasm as their Conservative opponents. If the party had stayed in power and Watson had remained on the frontbenches, he may well have found himself a regular guest at the corporate and private gatherings hosted by News International executives that are now seen as symbols and mechanisms of Murdoch's sway over British public life. It's a point Watson accepts, and he even confesses to feeling "some sympathy for Cameron" when the Prime Minister admitted that, with hindsight, he would not have installed Coulson in Downing Street. "You do not make decisions in hindsight," said Cameron.

With hindsight, Watson sees that his invitations from News International — to tour the newsrooms; to attend a boat race featuring a vessel sponsored by the company; to go to a tennis match organized by the company — were part of a larger pattern. He belonged to two governments, Blair's and Brown's, that feverishly sought the favor of Murdoch and his newspapers. "I've been embarrassed because a number of people have said I'm kind of heroically taking these guys on," says Watson. "I was part of that system and I feel ashamed about it. The only mitigating circumstances I have is that I did step off." And step up to the challenge.

The scandal that started with phone hacking isn't over, and has already spread beyond News International, triggering the resignations of Scotland Yard's Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and its counter-terrorism chief John Yates. "The policy goal is that good comes from evil," says Watson. "I already think good is coming from this. There's no doubt that the insidious relationship between the police and News International papers, that's going to change. And similarly we've already got more transparency in the system with politicians." As for Murdoch, Watson says, "what people will glean from the evidence in Parliament was, Rupert Murdoch is a man who's losing grip of his media empire." That may prove an exaggeration, but Watson has already loosened the tycoon's grip on British public life.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME's Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.