UK Politics

Profile: Labour MP Tom Watson

Labour MP Tom Watson
Tom Watson has been named Backbencher of the Year

Former minister Tom Watson has been dogged in his pursuit of the phone hacking issue - and he says he has put aside his desire for a backbencher's quiet life to do it.

Time and again, the West Bromwich East MP has raised the matter in the House of Commons and demanded more action from the police, prosecutors and Parliament.

A prolific blogger and user of Twitter, Mr Watson has been named backbencher of the year by The House magazine for his efforts.

Unlike some of his Parliamentary colleagues, Mr Watson does not claim that his mobile phone was ever targeted - but he says the issue is still personal for him.

In 2006, he resigned as a defence minister, calling for Tony Blair to quit in the interest of the Labour Party and the country - a move which hastened the then prime minister's departure from office.

He was accused of conspiring against Mr Blair with Gordon Brown when it emerged he had visited the then chancellor at his home in Scotland shortly before stepping down.

Both men denied any plot, but many didn't completely believe them.

'Productive life'

His decision to take a stand against Mr Blair, Mr Watson believes, put him in the media firing line, and the then editor of the Sun, and former News of the World chief, Rebekah Brooks, a friend and supporter of Mr Blair, was one of those with their fingers on the trigger.

"At that point, News International journalists told me that Rebekah Brooks would never forgive me for what I'd done to her Tony," Mr Watson told the BBC News website.

"They said she'd go after me."

Mr Watson insists that his resignation was largely due to family reasons - he wanted to take a step back from frontline politics and concentrate on his wife and children.

Hoping for what he calls "a productive life as a backbencher", he decided to join the culture select committee to pursue his interests in sport and the arts.

But just two days after joining, the Guardian newspaper put phone hacking back on the agenda and the committee decided to investigate it - once again thrusting Mr Watson into the spotlight.

"The first thing News International did was try to have me removed from the committee," he claims.

"I realised then that these people were never going away. Something had clearly gone wrong with newspapers and somebody had to get to the truth.

"There weren't many MPs who were prepared to do that for fear of being targeted, so I decided I had to do it.

"People then started coming to me - whistleblowers and victims - and I felt I had a responsibility towards them - I couldn't walk away."

Love of technology

A change of leadership at the top of Labour - the very change he had pushed for - also helped scupper Mr Watson's desire for relative anonymity.

Video games are among Mr Watson's passions

When Gordon Brown took over as leader and prime minister in 2007, Mr Watson was brought back into government as a whip, and in 2008 was appointed minister for digital engagement.

In that role, he found a niche. The former union official, who entered Parliament in 2001, was an early adopter of social media, seeing the potential of it as a political tool.

He was the first MP to have a blog and has described himself as "an apprentice nerd" for his love of all things technological.

He has a passion for Apple Mac computers, really big TVs and video games, and the latter led him to set up a Facebook group to help defend gamers from critics, specifically some within Labour who attacked them for apparently liking violence.

'Horrible week'

He also opposed plans to introduce new legislation to crack down on illegal file sharers, saying a carrot not a stick was needed to tackle the problem.

But during this period Mr Watson also had another run in with the media - including News International - when he was accused of being involved in the scandal surrounding a plot by Gordon Brown's spin doctor Damian McBride to spread smears about senior Tories.

The Mail on Sunday accused him of "encouraging" McBride while the Sun published a cartoon of him under the headline "Mad dog was trained to maul".

Mr Watson subsequently won "substantial" libel damages from both newspapers in the High Court, which ruled the stories linking him to the plot were not true.

But that "horrible week", as he describes it, made him even more determined to take on the newspapers over hacking.

He believes a public inquiry into the affair is vital in order to expose - and ultimately change - the culture in newsrooms and the cosy relationship between newspapers and politicians.

And while his passion for the internet and digital policy has taken something of a backseat due to the hacking affair, he believes the two are inextricably linked.

"The internet profoundly changed my view of the world and my politics," he says.

"The openness it offers - through social media in particular - enhances our democracy.

"The reason things like hacking are allowed to happen is because there is too much secrecy - at every stage, there have been powerful forces trying to hush things up, but I don't think that can happen now."

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