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Maybe We're Amazed: Tom Watson Digs In

It was a bonnie weekend for Tom Watsons in various corners of the British empire. Craggy, 61-year-old Tom Watson from Kansas City aced the sixth at the British Open at Sandwich, made the cut and played very well through the final round, exuding the class and gentlemanly behavior for which he is known (this is a man who once publicly quit a Missouri country club for excluding Jews, it will be remembered). On these shores, a certain blogger known to you all witnessed an act of British musical noblesse oblige by taking in the Paul McCartney concert at Yankee Stadium with his family, a celebratory act marking 25 years of happy marriage. Maybe I'm amazed, but Macca can still bang 'em out, and even the pro formist of pro forma Billy Joel  guest appearances couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of rockers like Jet, one of the great post-Beatle tunes.

But for real accomplishment, it's hard to beat the achievement of a much younger man, the youthful Tom Watson of West Bromwich East, which is to say, the midlands of Birmingham, the MP son of  a labor organizer and human thorn lodged fatally in the haunches of the Murdoch leviathan.

When I last saw Tom in London he was in government,  carrying the cabinet duties for Gordon Brown. But as the brilliant weekend profile in the Guardian recounted, he was falsely accused by The Sun (oh, irony!) of a role in a campaign to smear prominent Tories and received a retraction only on the day he left the confines of Whitehall.

"I took a quality of life decision. I didn't want to be part of this any more. It was taking too much toll. I had an interest in sport and the arts, so told Gordon [Brown] that at the next reshuffle I wanted to stand down as a minister."

And where did Watson end up? Why, the culture select committee, with its role in press oversight (a strange beast to Americans, I'll admit). The tale from there is pretty riveting, and my friend gives an honest accounting - here's a bit, but read the whole thing. Tenacity has its place in government:

"Two days later Nick Davies broke the story in the Guardian on the extent of the phone hacking, and John Whittingdale, the culture select committee chairman, to his credit, extended the inquiry."

At his very first hearing, on 21 July 2009, Watson found his presence on the select committee challenged by Tom Crone, legal manager on News Group Newspapers, on the grounds he was in litigation with News Group. Speaker's Counsel effectively told the Murdoch group to get lost.

"What was clear from the first hour of evidence given that day was that the executives were incredibly nervous. The interplay between Crone and the News of the World editor Colin Myler was curious. I was just trying to find out whether they'd told Rupert Murdoch about the payments, to silence people like Gordon Taylor with a £700,000 payment. They went defensive and said they had never told Rupert.

"But then they admitted that James Murdoch had authorised the payment, and from that moment I knew there was much more to this than met the eye. As soon as Myler said that, Crone looked very tense and suddenly realised a body blow had been delivered.

What's not in the Guardian profile is Tom's reliance on social media to keep the embers of this story burning. Through his blog, Facebook, and especially Twitter, Watson was able to ask public questions outside the House of Commons - questions that invariably got picked up by the cadre of journalists, bloggers, and observers who were closely following the story. It was a small but committed built-in audience for anything related to the widening (but still mainly quashed) phone hacking story. It helped the have the Guardian, England's most important news outlet, on the case, with investigative reporter Nick Davies running the story.

So tomorrow, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will face the committee. The story gets stranger, sadder, and more cinematic every day. Watson cautions against predicting too many fireworks but as James Wolcott slyly notes, this showdown has all the elements of the old Sam Ervin days on Capitol Hill. So much the better, because this story is not merely the tittle tattle of tabloid culture - it's the tale of an elected government and the national force in total thrall of a single multinational corporation and its hegemonic claws. As Watson says, the mess that the Murdochs find themselves in "is of their own making, in both conducting the hacking, and then failing to clear it up."

"Their response until the middle of last week has been dumb insolence, but they are now in freefall. I don't think they have a strategy. They are just slashing and burning everything, and anyone who was there at the time. The difficulty they have is James Murdoch was there at the time, and we know he authorised the payments to buy the silence of a victim of crime.

"It is still hard to believe what has happened over the past 10 days. It is just beginning to sink in what together we may have found out."

UPDATE: Via Jim Wolcott just now, this:

Mr. Murdoch was attending a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in early July when it became clear that the latest eruption of the hacking scandal was not, as he first thought, a passing problem. According to a person briefed on the conversation, he proposed to one senior executive that he “fly commercial to London,” so he might be seen as man of the people. He was told that would hardly do the trick, and he arrived on a Gulfstream G550 private jet.

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