Tom Watson: Money, power and the media

Tom Watson MP is sitting at a desk in Westminster, listening to the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners album. That’s sort of how I picture him a lot of the time: he’ll often start his working day by informing Twitter just what the soundtrack to his parliamentary office is. Squint and you can imagine a vista just somewhere between The Thick of It and teams that meet in caffs — a nexus between the world of Westminster, the real world of West Bromwich and the other real world of the web. The web that Tom has made his home since the days when MPs didn’t get notoriety and ridicule for what they said online but just for being there at all.

I first met Tom in person in a pub in Birmingham and ended the night later crawling home at around 5am. I’d first spoken to him, of course, online. I estimate that he had seven years as an MP before joining Twitter — then a small enough concern to organise drinks for all those that used it in one city in a small pub in a backstreet rather than, say, the O2. Today we conduct this interview via Twitter and no one bats an eyelid.

I know where Tom is as it was the first thing I asked. A journalist friend of mine always starts an interview by telling everyone just where it takes place: a device that can help set a tone for the reader. Are we comfortable here or is this a transactional experience? On Twitter, here, I think we are both comfortable. I wait for the DM that tells me when my light turns green.

Dexy’s first record — a trumpet-strewn impassioned plea for a better, more just, life — is firmly a document of its place and time. The music is dressed in donkey jackets as the band were and the angry cry of Kevin Rowland is that of a smart guy who doesn’t quite know how to change things for the better. Tom Watson is similarly rooted in the Midlands, fiercely intelligent, with the grammar school kid’s chip firmly on his shoulder. He thinks he does know how to change things and when the structures of democracy don’t serve the purpose he’s willing to get mad and hopefully even.

Sometimes the anger, while endearing him to many who watched him calling education secretary — and part time Pob impersonator — a “miserable pipsqueak of a man”, doesn’t go anywhere useful. At the time he blogged, “I began to make my point about the intolerable way that parents and pupils had been treated. His eyes met mine. Was his top lip really quivering? […] It was like looking at Bambi. So I shot him.”

We exchange opening bursts of 140 characters and I know Tom must be reaching the last line of track one, side one: “Shut your fucking mouth ’til you know the truth.” Tom is no doubt mouthing along to the words. Everyone does.

Has Twitter made you a better MP, I ask, or is it a distraction?

“It’s certainly broadened my horizons though sometimes I worry I read fewer books and magazines.”

Not newspapers you’ll note, Tom has a history with them. Metaphorically spat on and shat on by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, including a court decision against The Sun over claims that he was behind a plot to smear members of the Tory party. (Watson won an apology and a ‘substantial sum in damages.’) It seems reasonable that he might not be the mainstream media’s biggest fan.

We’ve not had the trolling or abuse I’d have expected the interview to incite. I’m glad as I’m rubbish with trolls and hecklers,so I couldn’t help if I’d tried, but Tom claims it doesn’t bother him. And we’ve not yet had the police accusing anyone of threatening Robin Hood airport: thankfully, not living in Yorkshire it doesn’t apply.

“When I first started blogging it was met with almost universal derision,” he told me. “It’s funny but after 13 years [of being in Parliament] I barely notice the snide stuff. It’s just the wild world of the ‘net, the rough bit of the pub.”

Mainstream media versus social media sees financial capital and social capital stacking up against each other. As one of the authors of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain, Tom has been in the centre of the push and pull for power — and the centre of the phone hacking trial that he says helped end his marriage. “I’ve certainly spent more time scrutinising the media than I anticipated in 2001,” he says.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he questioned Rupert and James Murdoch and former News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, in a committee session in July 2011. Re-questioning James Murdoch that November, Watson was again all over the papers for his likening of Murdoch to a mafia boss.

“At its heart,” he continues, ”social media allows you to form groups very quickly, with low barriers to entry.” As an example he cites his recent campaign against the something tactics of his nemesis The Sun. “Over 7000 people signed up to notothesun after it was shared on Facebook and Twitter.” It then became a issue for the press and TV: “a classic example of an online debate seeding political arguments to the mainstream media and, frankly, the pedestrian political parties.”

“The mainstream [media] definitely try to distil social media conversations, sometimes for old agendas. Yet, when you know trust in what’s read in papers like The Sun is down to 15% then there’s no need to worry much.”

If the papers aren’t the influence they were there’s still a mainstream channel that does: “I think online will be an important component of the 2015 election campaign but TV will still be the gorilla. And ultimately, if your policies are wrong, it doesn’t matter what your online voice sounds like.” And he adds in what might be construed as a dig at Ed Miliband, if he hadn’t already given BBC radio a more direct one, “I don’t think the twitter feeds of the party leaders add much to the debate.”

He’s just about to sign off but then lets slip that he’s seriously thinking of “going out there and setting up my own little campaigning news house to see what can be achieved”. Tom Watson again actively channelling the old order by using a delicious mix of political nous, online and offline networks and an anger that drives him on.

“We need much better media. More curious, less editorialised, more engaging.”

The old order? Burn it down.

Cue the trumpets. I’ll see you all in the front row.

Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed.

His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it’s out now.

Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It’s Not Shit.

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