Murdoch & me: How Chris Bryant brought a media mogul down to earth
Chris Bryant MP has been barracked by the tabloids for seven years. But as a man who has experienced far worse – an alcoholic mother, state terrorism and intense poverty in his parish while he was a vicar – he wasn't about to stop hounding Rupert into the dock
Sunday 07 August 2011
One day in December 2003, after he had dared to question the ethical standards of Britain's bestselling newspapers, Chris Bryant recalls, he was approached by a senior editorial figure of a popular tabloid. "We will have killed you," the journalist said, "by Christmas."
More than seven years on, this promise remains unfulfilled. The worst Bryant has suffered in that time is embarrassment surrounding a leaked photograph he took of himself, posing in front of a mirror in his Y-fronts – discomforting as an experience, certainly but, career-wise at least, rather less disruptive than death. Meanwhile, the professional reputations of the executives who have grown to despise him threaten to disintegrate with a dark inevitability reminiscent of certain tragedies by Marlowe or Shakespeare.
"Or Dickens," says Bryant. "At the first civil hearing I attended [when News International was negotiating out-of-court settlements with PFA chairman Gordon Taylor and publicist Max Clifford], the name of the Metropolitan Police's lawyer was Mr Buckett; the News of the World's man was a Mr Silverleaf, and now we discover that the legal firm they've been using is called Harbottle & Lewis. All of them could have come straight out of The Pickwick Papers."
Chris Bryant's name may lack the wild implausibility that so appealed to the creator of Wackford Squeers, Luke Honeythunder and Paul Sweedlepipe, but many aspects of his character – he's bright, determined, and not easily intimidated – are not incompatible with the qualities of a Dickensian hero. Had it not been for the tireless work he put in, together with fellow MP Tom Watson, it's more than likely that the full extent of News International employees' improprieties, both proven and alleged, would never have become the subject of a full and transparent investigation.
The righteous outrage of the majority of his fellow MPs has been reactive, a passive response to revelations concerning the News of the World's hacking into Milly Dowler's phone messages, and the targeting of the mobile belonging to Sara Payne, whose daughter was abducted and killed in 2000; the case that famously prompted then-editor Rebekah Brooks to launch the News of the World's campaign for the shaming of paedophiles, known as "Sarah's Law". Where the alleged hacking of phones and computers is concerned, Bryant, by contrast, has been on the front foot for almost a decade. He's proved to be a dubious operator's worst nightmare: tenacious, with an exceptional memory for detail, and not easily deterred by intimidation.
We're sitting in his office at Portcullis House, the modern annexe across the street from the Commons, not far from the room where Rupert and James Murdoch endured an uncomfortable session of questioning from the Culture, Media and Sports Committee last month. Just beyond his reach is a ceremonial sword, awarded to the swimming champion of the House of Commons, a trophy which he's retained for the past five years.
Bryant, 49, was born in Wales, though he retains no trace of the accent. He is unusually articulate by the standards of his political peers and, while friendly and accommodating, doesn't trouble to employ the kind of ingratiating gestures of overfamiliarity perfected by – to choose one name from many – Tony Blair.
The Murdoch affair has been likened, somewhat prematurely, to Watergate. One similarity it does share with that scandal is the way in which the crude simplicity of the initial allegations is tending, with time, to become obscured by minutiae.
"Just to help anybody who hasn't followed the history of this business in every detail, could you remind me how you came to be so prominently involved?"
"I was elected in 2001 as Labour MP for the Rhondda. The following year we began an enquiry, on the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, into media intrusion."
"Did you have a particular interest in this?"
"A couple in my constituency had got in touch with me. Their child had a disability which, while it was not an obvious one, they hadn't wanted to be made public. A newspaper ran the story anyhow. It had been very upsetting for the family. They'd complained to the Press Complaints Commission, which was completely useless. There was another case where a man had been a victim of crime; days later he was called by the News of the World saying they were going to print the story."
"And that made you wonder about the relationship between some members of the press and the police?"
"That's where the matter of payment to police officers came in. So [in committee hearings in March 2003] we summoned all the editors of the national newspapers. I asked Rebekah Brooks, 'Have you ever paid police officers for information?' And she said, 'Yes.' Andy Coulson attempted to correct her by saying, 'But only under the law,' which of course paying policemen can never be."
"And then we ran out of time."
"Since when you've continued to scrutinise News International more closely than some colleagues?"
"I suppose so, yes. I left the committee in 2005 and then I was a PPS [Parliamentary Private Secretary] first of all to Charlie Falconer, then Harriet Harman; after that I became a minister." (Following Labour's 2010 General Election defeat, Bryant, by then Minister for Europe, returned to the back benches). "This phone-hacking business resurfaced in my life in 2009, when I read the Guardian story about the money that had been paid to the PFA chairman Gordon Taylor, and about how there were many more victims."
At that point, Bryant says, he wrote to the Metropolitan Police, asking whether his own name was mentioned in the files relating to Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator jailed for six months in 2007 for hacking phones on behalf on the News of the World and the man whose notebooks contained the mobile number of Rebekah Brooks's "good friend" Sara Payne.
"The police took seven months to reply. They said, 'There's a piece of paper with your name on it, but no evidence that you have been hacked.'"
"Did the detectives show you the full paperwork?"
"I asked them to. They wouldn't release the document, so we launched a judicial review on the Metropolitan Police, at the same time trying to set up a public inquiry. I was convinced there had been a cover-up. David Cameron kept on pooh-poohing it. Boris Johnson, as you will remember, said it was 'codswallop'."
Finally, in January 2011, the police investigation, Operation Weeting, was launched.
"And that was when officers showed me two sheets of foolscap, with names and addresses of people I'd been close to. There's a list of 23 telephone numbers which you could know only if you'd listened to my messages."
"So when people talk about 4,000 victims, does that figure refer to people who were central targets, like you, or does it include each subsidiary caller?"
This is one of many important questions, Chris Bryant says, which have yet to be answered.
When Rupert Murdoch gave his evidence in committee last month, Bryant was seated directly behind the Australian's wife, Wendi.
"It seemed to me," I suggest, "that Rupert Murdoch's defence was essentially: how can it be my fault that the plane hit the mountainside? I was too busy captaining the aircraft."
"It was even worse than that. One side to it was: 'Look, I'm an old, old man. I have to answer questions very slowly. I have no memory. And secondly, yes, this is a very big company. Both defences are dangerous. As to the first: if it's true, he shouldn't be in charge of the company. Regarding the second, if they have no proper corporate governance, all these things could happen again next week."
It was curious, I tell Bryant, to see those individuals striking poses of apparent contrition.
"A couple of years ago," I remind Bryant, "James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks burst into the offices of the editor-in-chief at The Independent, shouting, 'You fucking fuckwit.' ['Vocabulary,' the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans remarked, when he heard, 'never was their strong point.'] You've encountered Rebekah Brooks in one of her less conciliatory moods, haven't you?"
"That was at a party conference, I think in 2004. The journalist Andrew Pierce took me to the News International Party; I wasn't invited. Rebekah Brooks was there. She said: 'Ah, Mr Bryant. It's after dark. Shouldn't you be out on Clapham Common by now?' This was not long after [then-Labour MP] Ron Davies had been caught there." (Davies was robbed at knifepoint by a man he had met at that well-known gay meeting place.) "And that's when Rebekah Brooks's then-husband Ross Kemp said: 'Shut up, you homophobic cow.'"
"I laughed, then I drank a couple more glasses of News International's champagne, as an act of vengeance."
"Aren't you the person who once remarked on Rupert Murdoch's 'casual violence'?"
"Well, you saw that in the way he kept tapping the table, when he was facing the committee. Normally he does that with rings on. He wasn't wearing his rings. Wendi stopped him. James tried to stop him. But it's what he does. He is very intimidating." k
"You felt they sort of got away with it, at least temporarily," I suggest.
"It was a very good act. James Murdoch did manager-speak for hours. He wittered on and on and on. But when you look at what he said about the money paid to Gordon Taylor... there is simply no rationale for paying out £700,000. If he really believed what he said, he got terrible legal advice. And [at that hearing] he had nine acolytes, including Wendi, but there were only eight seats. So you had two very expensively attired lawyers sitting on each other's laps."
"These comparisons with Watergate may be exaggerated, but you do get the same sense that, in order for the whole truth to emerge, events require at least one more small push."
"What you've still got to come are the police investigations," Bryant responds. "Rebekah Brooks was interrogated by detectives for 12 hours, and by MPs for 90 minutes. In American committees you can take a witness for a whole day." In addition, Bryant adds, "you have Operation Weeting. They are now contacting all the victims, which of course is what they should have done in the first place. And lastly you will have the inquiry [the judicial investigation into the regulation of the media, which began last week, led by Lord Justice Leveson]. In the course of that process, all of these emails, which apparently incriminate very senior figures at the News of the World, will come out."
Concerning Rebekah Brooks's denial that she, as editor of the News of the World, could have known that her paper had hacked the messages of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler, Bryant believes that, "If she did know, she's been lying all this time. If she didn't know, she has been culpably negligent."
The revelation that Mulcaire's notes contained the mobile phone number of Sara Payne, is, Bryant says, "breathtaking". The fact that a woman who considered the News of the World operatives her trusted allies could be targeted is, he adds, "a clear sign that this newspaper was completely out of control. The hypocrisy is just unimaginable."
Whatever your views about Bryant's politics, you can't but admire his passion and commitment. As recently as March he was addressing the Commons, imploring the few members present to address the allegations as a matter of urgency. In the past few weeks – notably on the recent Channel 4 Dispatches special – other MPs have spoken candidly about their fear of being victimised, should they appear to hinder the ambitions of News International. And this, says Bryant, is why the impending investigation is so important – because it goes to the heart of a rather significant question: "Namely, who runs the country?"
A former vicar, Conservative activist and heterosexual, Chris Bryant, who has been openly gay since he was in his mid-twenties, has some personal experience of the risks of confronting powerful players in the British media.
The many admirable things that Bryant has achieved in his life include overcoming a very difficult childhood (a subject he will address in due course), gaining an English degree from Oxford, producing two well-written biographies (of Stafford Cripps and Glenda Jackson) and risking his life to help vulnerable individuals in Latin America. All of which, I suggest to the MP, makes it especially unfortunate that he was best known, until recently, for having, as is widely believed, posted that notorious photograph on the Gaydar dating website.
"What were you thinking of?"
"That's what everybody assumes: how stupid can he possibly be? But the only people who put that picture on a website were The Mail on Sunday and The Sun."
The first sign of trouble, he says, came when a Mail on Sunday reporter showed up at his Welsh constituency office.
"A large percentage of what was written was untrue."
"And yet that picture exists, and it will never go away."
"It won't. If I had £1,000 for every time I've read, 'Chris Bryant who once posed in his underpants,' I would be a very wealthy man."
"One thousand? I think you'd be financially secure if we said 10."
"Indeed. Or if anybody had paid me for the copyright: because I am clearly the photographer. I received proposals from middle-aged women who had clearly not grasped the main point of the story. And I increased my majority at the next election. Which possibly shows that it pays to advertise."
"If you didn't post the picture on Gaydar, how did The Mail on Sunday get it?"
"I don't know."
"I am. I imagine it came from someone I had emailed it to."
"To me, that photograph was something and nothing. What surprised me more were those reports of you blogging under the name of Alfa101."
"I didn't blog as anything."
"Have you ever used that particular nom de guerre?"
"It's a fact that I was on Gaydar."
Anyhow, I tell Bryant, it was his alias as "Alfa101" that I found bizarre.
"I suppose because it's not a pseudonym I'd choose myself. Perhaps because it would encourage expectations that might be problematic to fulfil."
"It's a car."
"It's a car. It's an Alfa Romeo. What did you think it meant?"
"I thought it referred to Alpha Male."
"But that would be spelt with a 'ph', wouldn't it?"
I've never thought of using my own vehicle name as an online sobriquet, I tell him, "maybe because I drive an elderly Sharan".
"I don't know what a Sharan is. The 101 is actually a very cheap Alfa. And it wasn't the car I drove..."
Bryant's tone indicates that this somewhat surreal conversation has gone as far as it will go.
"OK, you've put your £10 in the pot," he says. "The irony of that story was that it was about a gay man who failed to get sex. I'm fortunate that my constituency was very supportive."
Looking through his file of press cuttings, you see the extent to which Chris Bryant has been vilified. In the first week of December 2003 alone, he inspired headlines including "Gay MP Faces the Axe", "How Gay Is My Valley?" (Daily Mail) and "Voters Must Give Bryant A Rhondda Rogering" (The Sun). The Mail sent a man to show the photograph to constituents. "A window cleaner," the journalist reported, "gasped, 'God help us!'... then the colour drained from his cheeks."
The Sunday Times published a profile in the same month, entitled "Blair's Attack Poodle Says Pants To The Lot Of You". Its author claimed to have observed men of the Rhondda "quivering with shock" at the photograph.
I remind him of how, around this time, a stalker rang his doorbell, "and said 'I am very submissive.' And you said: 'Well, piss off, then.'"
"Yes. Then he said: 'I'm not that submissive.' I had two stalkers. The other ended up in prison."
In modern politics, Bryant says, "I believe you have to be sufficiently open to the world around you to be hurt, when people attack you, but you have to have a thick enough skin to be able to survive. I have had hideous emails. Absolutely hideous. You have to let that hurt enough; otherwise you just become arrogant and irrelevant."
Chris Bryant was born in Cardiff, but between the ages of seven and 12 lived in Spain; first in Bilbao, then Madrid, where his father Rees ran the IT department for Chrysler. Gracie, the politician's late mother, had studied art in her home city of Glasgow.
He was a day boy at Cheltenham College before reading English at Mansfield College, Oxford, where contemporaries included William Hague and Boris Johnson.
"I know you don't like dead metaphors, but – not to beat about the bush – you're posh."
"The cheap end of posh."
I would have had some trouble, I tell him, in guessing that he was a former vicar. (Bryant, who trained at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, served as a curate, chaplain and priest between 1986 and 1991.)
"There was a period when everything went wrong at home and I lived with my school chaplain, Sam Salter, and his wife Margaret, for a year. He was eccentric and wonderful. He had a great influence on me."
"When you say 'went wrong'..."
"My mother was alcoholic. It was a terrible, terrible mess. She was a very unhappy person. I have memories of pouring vast quantities of vodka down the drain; of Mum being drunk in the kitchen, and of searching around trying to find out where the bottle was. I remember realising that the reason my avocado stone hadn't grown a root was because it was suspended not over water, but vodka. It became impossible for my dad. Once he left, I was the oldest [sober] person in the house." (Bryant has a younger brother, Rhodri.) "The first time I went on a date – with a girl – I came home and Mum had fallen over and hit her head; she was lying in the kitchen, in a pool of blood."
"Did this responsibility give you a different perspective on life, as a child?"
"Possibly, in the sense that I spent a great deal of time with adults. Teachers were very supportive of me. I took mum through DTs several times."
"Which is a life-threatening condition?"
"It is. She had terrible fits, on the floor. The really difficult thing was all the lies. I remember once taking her to Marks & Sparks and buying her some clothes. I came back a month later and she was in the old ones. The new stuff had all been taken back and exchanged for booze. It was very hard to help her in that period. It was just miserable, around her.
"How did this end, with your mother?"
"We don't know the exact date – she had a lodger who was away at the time – but she probably died on 1 May 1993. I'm not sure whether she deliberately took so many pills with too much booze."
On his first weekend in Oxford, in 1980, the MP recalls, "I thought: shall I go to church? I did, and I loved it."
Chris Bryant served as a curate in High Wycombe, and as a youth chaplain in Peterborough. He conducted the funeral of Michael Croft, founder of the National Youth Theatre (where Bryant performed regularly as a teenager) at Croft's specific request.
"I heard you were 25 when a girlfriend told you: 'You know you're gay, don't you?'"
"About that age. I had some wonderful girlfriends, one of whom sang at my civil partnership [with the company director Jared Cranney] last year. But I had also... dabbled."
"And you left the church because of your sexuality?"
"Yes. A second-century saint said that there are only two rivers you can never dam: spirituality and sexuality. I don't think the Church of England has noticed, but I am boycotting them. Because if they don't want us, I don't see why we should want them."
"How old were you when you left the clergy?"
"Twenty nine. I knew so many men who had stayed in the Church – lots of them gay – because they had no choice. I didn't want to end up like that. I would have hated to be in there now, with this suggestion that you can be in a civil partnership but only if it's celibate. This nonsense that the Church got itself into. I didn't want to live a lie. So I looked around for some other area where I could make a difference."
"How did your parents react?"
"My mother said she should always have known I was gay because I walked oddly."
"And your father?"
"When I came out, we were in a period where we weren't talking, because of the trauma of my mother's drinking."
"How long did that estrangement last?"
"How did it end?"
"I wrote to him; I said, 'I think you ought to know that I'm gay.' We get on very well now."
"Of all the things you've been, the most surprising to me is that you were a Tory."
"I went to Cheltenham College. The world around me was Tory. At Oxford I stood for the Conservative Association executive, where the aim was to deliver the vote of the Tory Reform Group against William Hague."
"I'd have thought that the era of Margaret Thatcher would have politicised anybody with a strong sense of right and wrong."
"Two things changed me. The National Youth Theatre, where I think I was the only public schoolboy. And, especially, the Church. My first placement was at Walker, in Newcastle."
"Which introduced you to a different world?"
"Yes. One of boarded-up houses and intense poverty. I realised that people were being generous to me with money that they didn't have. They were putting food on the table for me that they simply couldn't afford. And yes, that opened my eyes to a different world; the world I represent now, in the Rhondda."
At the suggestion of Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, Bryant went to Latin America, in his early twenties. He recalls being beaten up in Lima, after spending a day with liberation theologist Gustavo Gutiérrez. He spent six months in Buenos Aires, studying theology and working for a human-rights organisation.
"After that, I was supposed to spend three months in Chile. But I was ordered to leave after a week because I went to the funeral of a boy who'd had petrol poured over him by the police. I was asked to lead the prayers; then the police arrived with water cannon and tear gas."
It was this latter episode, he says, that prompted him to join the Labour Party.
"All the tear gas used by Pinochet was made in Britain. I brought a canister back. I wrote to Chris Patten, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He never replied. I wrote to the Liberal Simon Hughes. He told me to write to Patten. Then I contacted George Foulkes, now Lord Foulkes, and he invited me for tea."
"There seems to have been general surprise that, in the Rhondda, out of 53 candidates for the Labour nomination, you were selected."
"I was surprised."
"And you got on with Blair, who was not universally adored in those Labour heartlands. I remember talking to his father-in-law, Tony Booth, and explaining that, at one point, I'd believed Tony Blair to be fundamentally driven by morality. Booth said: 'That's where you're making your mistake.'"
"I don't agree. I think Blair was good for the Labour Party and the country. I think there were a couple of things he got profoundly wrong."
"I voted in favour of the war. For me it was never about the dossier; it was about the failure to comply with the international community's demands."
"So you wanted regime change?"
"Erm... not quite... there were big, big mistakes. We should have fought harder for a second resolution. It was a ludicrous decision to dismantle the security services."
"Especially letting them keep all their weapons."
"Yes. It meant the country collapsed into madness." k
"So if you had your time again?"
"I can only stand by what I did. I'd seen what Pinochet had done in Chile. I had friends who'd been tortured. That made me instinctively an intervener." (By September 2006, Bryant had become sufficiently disenchanted with Blair, then widely perceived as a liability, to co-ordinate a letter demanding his resignation.)
"Given your experience with News International, what on earth do you make of Tony Blair's decision, in 1995, to fly halfway across the world to Hayman Island and begin sucking up to Murdoch? After everything he had done to Neil Kinnock?"
"In the 1992 election, everybody thought we were going to win. We lost. It's not so much that they systematically attacked Neil Kinnock. It was more that they tried to destroy him."
"But that's exactly what I mean. Given that appalling history, how could Blair..."
"As leader of a Labour Party which had been out of power for 18 years, you'd say, right, I have at least to neutralise everything that's been against us. We probably surrendered policy areas that we shouldn't have done because of it."
"But the question there is..."
"Whether you surrender your soul in the process."
There's a sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie circulating on YouTube, based on the James Stewart film It's a Wonderful Life, showing how Britain might have been if Murdoch had never lived: a country less troubled by racial intolerance, sexism and greed.
"It ends," I tell Bryant, "with Fry, in the role of guardian angel, pushing Murdoch off a bridge and into a river. Have you seen it?"
"No. I've heard about it."
"You've been a priest and an English literature student. The Edinburgh Review wrote an article about Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in which they described the novel as 'the opposite of sacred'. Do you think that phrase could apply to what Rupert Murdoch has done in the world?"
"No," says Bryant. "That's not the way my mind works. My politics sprang out of liberation theology, where everything is black and white. But that's not where I am now."
"Tell me a few of the good things Murdoch has done."
"In the Rhondda," Bryant says, "people wouldn't have got access to digital television if not for Sky."
"That's like saying there would be no cars if it wasn't for Carl Benz. It possibly wouldn't have happened so soon."
"Not so soon... all right. The problem has been that television, by its nature, tends to produce monopolies. The Murdoch empire has always used anti-competitive practices to move faster towards monopoly."
"Well, TiVo couldn't get off the ground in the UK; but Sky Plus means that you don't have to watch terrible adverts. And they've improved the showing of cricket."
"Just staying with sport, how about The Sun's allegations that Liverpool fans robbed the dead at Hillsborough. Or...?"
"Listen, I believe they have done appalling things. I'm not detracting from that."
These are remarkably measured responses from a man who knows better than most what can happen when, to quote the late US investigative journalist Gary Webb, "you get the big dog off the porch". In The Sunday Times' 2003 profile alone, Bryant was described as "a pillock", "sanctimonious", "po-faced" and "a bumptious little berk": characteristics that I couldn't identify in the man I met.
But Chris Bryant is a man focused more on the future than on past grievances. His aims, he tells me, are simple.
"All the criminals in prison," he says. "The Met never compromised so much again. A press that is robust but based on decency and legality. And better media-ownership rules that do not place too much power in the hands of one person."
"You received some feedback from people purporting to be connected to NewsCorp quite recently, didn't you?"
"It was along the lines of: 'This will not be forgotten. Nothing will happen now. But Rupert will not forget it.' It came via a friend. Two lieutenants of Rupert Murdoch's, one in the States, one here, approached him independently with the same message."
One of the less contentious paragraphs in that 2003 profile referred to a statement the MP once made concerning London theatres. Their interiors, he suggested, should be modernised, "because the seats were designed for backsides of the Victorian, not the modern era". While 19th-century furniture was stable, the author remarked, "Chris Bryant's own seat may have an ejector button."
It's entirely possible that the MP may, having made so many powerful enemies, find himself catapulted into the void. And yet – in view of the persistence and courage with which he has pursued his cause – it seems equally likely that, as his career progresses, Chris Bryant will see his endeavour rewarded with some more gradual and dignified ascent.
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