Chris Bryant: Scourge of Murdoch
The humbling of a once mighty newspaper empire owes much to the bravery of an MP whose stature is growing by the day
Saturday 16 July 2011
If you wanted to invent a hate figure for the beastly right-wing press, and in particular its vicious News International sub-genus, you'd be hard pressed to better Chris Bryant MP.
He's gay, and openly so; he is a former vicar, a "trendy" type of one, to borrow red-top vernacular; he was a famously ultra-loyal Blairite, criticised for "toadying" to the Labour leadership; he was a fiercely pro-integrationist and pro-euro minister for Europe; most impertinently of all, of course, he had the temerity to challenge Rupert Murdoch.
Now that, in that ringing phrase of Vince Cable, it is as if Britain has been freed from some kind of dictatorship, Bryant deserves much of the praise, alongside Tom Watson and John Prescott, for his brave and risky campaign against the old despot. Bryant, in those terms, could be said to be something of a Trotsky figure, the man who marshalled the revolution's limited resources to kick down the whole rotten façade of Wapping's Winter Palace. Maybe someone will make an Eisenstein-style film of his revolutionary endeavours. It would certainly make an excellent memoir, and Bryant is an accomplished writer, already having published biographies of Glenda Jackson and Stafford Cripps. And Bryant has not finished yet. For him the revolution "has not happened, quite. There's lots more fights to go. We're only about halfway down the murky pool".
He points out that only about 170 of the 3,800 or so potential hacking victims have been contacted. He mentions a friend of a friend who perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami a few years ago and cannot understand how the News of the World got hold of personal details. Even now he doesn't quite feel vindicated. "A lot of people have asked me that and it doesn't feel like that. There's just a lot of things we need to get to the bottom of."
Not content with doing his bit to close the News of the World, have various News international executives arrested, have the Murdochs answer to Parliament for their actions and secured the resignation of Rebekah Brooks – the Tsarina to Tsar Rupert – he now wants to get Murdoch out of BSkyB completely and take the fight to News Corp itself. "The next thing is, I'm writing to all the non-executive directors, including the former Spanish Prime Minister Mr Aznar and others of News Corp, to ask them what they knew, when they knew it, what actions they took to ensure that their newspaper was complying with police investigations," Bryant told Reuters yesterday. "What did the directors do to check on what Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson said about phone hacking back in 2003, and did they know about hush money that was paid? This company has shown itself completely unable to act within the law, and if it's not able to do that, if it's true as the police said on Tuesday that they had deliberately thwarted the police investigation, then I think they shouldn't have any share in a British media organisation."
Bryant's enemies are unlikely to let up, however, though the Murdoch red-tops might be well advised to lay off him for now. Now, more than ever, Bryant is loathed by the right. Only yesterday Richard Littlejohn used his Daily Mail column to write about "the self-appointed moral conscience of the nation, Chris Bryant – last seen posing on the internet in his underpants, soliciting for casual gay sex".
That refers to Bryant's entirely unforced error of appearing on the gay dating website Gaydar posing only in his underpants, and apparently unflattering ones too. He could be allowed some pride in his physique, being the parliamentary swimming champ, and obviously fit. How he thought he might remain anonymous in such circumstances remains a mystery almost as deep as how News International thought its industrial-scale hacking could remain a secret.
"I honestly don't know how they got hold of the story – it was the Mail on Sunday that ran it," he told me yesterday. "I remember a woman turning up at the constituency office [in Rhondda] and I thought, 'That's a very posh coat she's wearing' and they doorstepped me. It was horrid and I didn't sleep very well."
He went on to describe how his phone was hacked. "On 3 December 2003, four attempts were made to blag my PIN number from my mobile phone. I don't know if that was News International. But I was a Mulcaire target for the News of the World." It was after that that Bryant began pursuing the police over the scandal and pressing for a judicial review and inquiry, which he has now achieved.
Was it happening at other newspaper groups? He is circumspect. "I presume it was, though it's an expensive business. So it probably wasn't being done by the papers that didn't have much money. I've seen no evidence of others doing it."
So it all began with that underpants incident in 2003, only two years after he entered Parliament, and it almost cost him his career (and perhaps the rest of us our liberation). It has dogged him ever since, despite the fact that he has held proper grown-up jobs in government, including serving as Gordon Brown's Minister for Europe. Only a few weeks ago George Osborne knocked back a perfectly innocuous question from Bryant about the Chancellor being "Baron Hardup" with the reply "At least I'm not a pantomime dame", an excessively scornful comment even by the Chancellor's high standards of offensive wit.
Had Bryant not chosen to switch from the church to politics, it likely that he might well have been one of those vicars regularly "outed" by the red-tops at some point in his ecclesiastical career. Wisely, though, he decided that being gay and an Anglican minister in the 1990s were not compatible, and at the age of 25 he abandoned the ministry, having served in High Wycombe and Peterborough, in favour of becoming a Labour agent in Frank Dobson's London constituency.
Having almost won the unlikely seat of High Wycombe in the New Labour landslide of 1997, Bryant surprisingly landed the rock-solid working-class Rhondda, where he was elected in 2001. He is holding his 10th anniversary party this evening. Many people, who perhaps know South Wales less well than they think, speculated that he might be deselected after the Gaydar affair and the general mauling he got in the tabloids, but whatever problems he might have had he is surely secure there now. After all, Rupert Murdoch and his titles were powerful allies of Margaret Thatcher when she was laying waste to the coal industry and much else in the valleys in the 1980s. The man who vanquished Murdoch is likely to earn the lasting respect of his constituents. Not that he had a very "Welsh" or working-class background. His father was Welsh and a computer engineer, who spent time working in Spain, where Bryant became fluent in the language.
So what if he was the first gay MP to have his civil partnership ceremony in the Commons? Declaring his commitment to his partner, company secretary Jared Cranney, was another token of his bravery. Brave, then, but not without flaws. "Aggressive, extremely articulate, bears personal grudges, a lot of hatred there and seemingly rather a lot to prove," according to one who has encountered Bryant. He is as open about his ambition as he is about his sexuality, and that may also have alienated some. When the time was ripe, in 2006, he turned against Blair and took part in an a noted coup to replace him with Brown (a 1905 revolution rather than a 1917 one, for students of history).
Chris Bryant has proved a great deal about himself, but, much more valuably, about the Britain we allowed ourselves to become and for Murdoch to dominate.
A life in brief
Born: Christopher John Bryant, 11 January 1962, Cardiff.
Family: The son of a Welsh computer engineer and a Scottish mother. He has been in a civil partnership with his partner, Jared Cranney, since 2010.
Education: Attended Cheltenham College, then Mansfield College, Oxford, where he completed a BA in English, before studying theology at Ripon College.
Career: He was a curate and then youth chaplain in the diocese of Peterborough. In 1991 he left the church to join the Labour Party. He stood in the 1997 general election for High Wycombe, but was not elected until 2001, for Rhondda. He served on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee, and from 2009-10 he was Minister for Europe. He is now shadow minister for political and constitutional reform.
He says: "I don't primarily think of myself as a gay MP; I think of myself as the Labour MP for the Rhondda."
They say: "A brilliant parliamentarian – and he speaks Spanish, French, German and Italian." Harriet Harman
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