~ Posted by Robert Butler, May 16th 2012
Hard to think of a better example of two books squeezed into one than "Dial M for Murdoch", published last month, a fascinating account of the hacking scandal and the cover-up at News International. The book has two authors—the Independent's Martin Hickman and the Labour MP Tom Watson—and both make appearances in the book, where each is referred to in the third person. But there's a big difference: Hickman is an observer and Watson is a main character.
For most of the book, the tone is what you would expect: good clear reporting, the facts—shocking as they are—presented in a reasonably detached fashion. But every now and then, "Tom Watson" makes an appearance in the story and the tone can suddenly veer off. We hear about some of his thought processes as if he were a character in a novel and this leads, inevitably in this context, to moments of bathos. We learn for instance that Watson "watched every episode of the American detective series 'The Wire' and decided to follow the advice of one of its characters". (This was the moment the detective Lester Freamon, played by Clarke Peters, repeated Deepthroat's line: "Follow the money.") The quality of the information changes too. We get the little details that thriller writers like to use to locate characters. "At 10am the next day, as he drank black coffee at the Fire Station in Waterloo, Tom Watson was called by Ed Miliband's office..."
In short, one writer is working in a different genre from the other. Watson wants us to root for the little guy and share his point of view. Two hours before questioning Rupert and James Murdoch at the Select Committee hearing, we learn that "Watson shut the door of his office in Portcullis House, put on the Doors album 'LA Woman' at full blast and paced around rehearsing questions."
The trouble with this is that Watson isn't the only hero in the hacking story: at the very least, there's also the Guardian's Nick Davies and the solicitors Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris. What coffee were they drinking? What music were they putting on when they paced around their offices? Balance suggests we should be told, but it would be ridiculous if we were.
It's clear from "Dial M for Murdoch" that Watson has paid a high price for his campaign: his marriage broke up, he has felt suicidal and he has feared for his personal safety. Yet he is still a central figure in a story that is moving swiftly. One day he should write a personal book about his role in exposing this scandal. Just not yet.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life