As a national tabloid newspaper admits phone hacking, Political Editor Jonathan Walker talks to a West Midlands MP who has been a leading campaigner to uncover the scandal.
Tom Watson was looking forward to escaping the spotlight after he quit Gordon Brown’s government in 2009.
His decision to resign as a minister and return to the back benches was prompted partly by a series of high-profile battles with the media which he feared was affecting his family.
On one occasion, neighbours were alarmed when they spotted men who turned out to be national journalists going through bins outside Mr Watson’s home.
But the Black Country MP, who has represented West Bromwich East as a Labour MP since 2001, has emerged as a leading campaigner in the battle to uncover the truth about phone hacking and other dirty tricks used by parts of the national newspaper industry.
As a member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he quizzed senior staff from The News of the World about a culture in the newsroom which, in the words of the committee’s report, “at best turned a blind eye to illegal activities such as phone-hacking and blagging and at worst actively condoned it”.
And last year he launched an outspoken attack on the “barons of the media” during a passionate speech in the House of Commons, claiming: “They are untouchable. They laugh at the law. They sneer at Parliament. They have the power to hurt us, and they do, with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality.”
But what motivates his campaign?
After all, two men have already served jail terms after a court found them guilty of plotting to intercept voice mail messages left for royal aides.
Former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman, and Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator he employed, were sentenced in 2007 to four months and six months in prison respectively.
Speaking to the Birmingham Post, Mr Watson said he was concerned that phone hacking, and a general culture in parts of the national media that meant nothing was off limits, was damaging public life – and even made MPs scared to express their honest opinions on policy matters.
He said: “Phone hacking was a reflection of a toxic media culture in some newsrooms in the UK.
“It’s immensely corrosive and damages our democracy. We need a culture change.
“Secondly, I’m not yet convinced that the nation knows the level and depth of criminality that took place when it comes to invasions of people’s privacy.”
Mr Watson has first-hand experience of being on the receiving end of a media onslaught, after he was falsely accused of being part of a smear campaign aimed at prominent Tories.
He received apologies and damages from both News Group Newspapers, publisher of News of the World and The Sun, and Associated Newspapers Limited, the publisher of the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail, after he took them to court.
But some MPs were so anxious to avoid being targeted by the press that they avoided taking policy positions which they knew the newspaper publishers opposed, he said. “I think people fear the invasion of their privacy.
"I know of people whose children had their phones hacked. I know of people, there are victims of crime whose family members suffered criminal invasions of their privacy.
“So I think MPs fear an onslaught of a media attack where there is a mix of legitimate ferocious criticism of the decisions they take in their professional life mixed up with a rigorous intrusion into their private life.
"It makes them fearful of making tough decisions that may be politically unacceptable to newspaper groups. MPs fear retribution for standing out on political matters.”
Fear of the power of the national press extended to MPs sitting on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and may have undermined last year’s inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, which included an investigation into phone hacking, Mr Watson said.
But it wasn’t only politicians or celebrities who were victims of media invasions of privacy, he added.
“I think a lot of people involved in this case would like to convince you and your readers it is only big name politicians and well known celebrities that are the target of phone hacking.
“Actually, the thing that turns my stomach is private citizens, who are only in the news because they are victims of crime, and there appears to be quite strong evidence to show that their loved ones have had their phones tapped.”
Mr Watson has raised similar concerns in the House of Commons, where he suggested in a Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing in March that relatives of murdered Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman may have been victims of phone hacking.
In the long term, Mr Watson wants to see the Press Complaints Commission replaced by a body with teeth which is able to take tough action against newspapers which break the law.
But he says he is sympathetic to the plight of journalists who are under pressure to get stories by “any means necessary”.
“What I suspect has happened, but I don’t yet know, is that journalists on the bottom of the pile, people on the newsdesks, people in relatively junior positions carried the can but may have been instructed or expected to use any means necessary to obtain their stories.”
He added: “What I don’t want to do is send a lot of cub reporters writing celebrity gossip to jail.
“What I do think is important though is we find out how far up in News International people knew about this, and get that into the public domain.
“And that leads on to why I think we need to do that. The Press Complaints Commission has essentially become a national joke as a result of this.
"Their model of self regulation is an embarrassment to anyone who tries to defend it. What I would like to see come out of this – you would expect me to say some kind of statutory regulation, but I don’t believe in that – I’d like to see self-regulation that works.
“And that can only happen if the Government, proprietors and editors sit down and build a model of self-regulation with some kind of quasi-independence, possibly with some statutory powers.
"The parallel I would draw is the Advertising Standards Authority, which is not a Government body but can in some way oblige advertisers to remedy mistakes that have been made.
“And so a Press Complaints Commission model like that would go a very long way to changing the media culture in Britain.”