Tom Watson’s Twitter feed has gone a bit quiet recently. Strange, as he is normally quite vocal about media ethics and their failings. But his silence is well-judged: when he stood up in PMQs and referred to a ‘a powerful pedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10’ and referred to ‘senior aide of a former Prime Minister’ he started a massive and tawdry guessing game, just as the Newsnight investigation did. And was his evidence any stronger? Harriet Harman has just been asked on BBC Sunday Politics, and she didn’t know. For those who missed it, here’s Watson’s PMQs intervention:
Of course, MPs can make any accusation they like in parliament and be protected from being sued. This is an ancient privilege, but has acquired a new potency in the Twitter era because if your intervention is televised it takes about five seconds for a Twitter lynch mob to start having a guess. Spontaneous smearing begins. And next thing you know, Philip Schofield is presenting the Prime Minister with a list of names he found on the internet.
Was it appropriate for Watson to use parliamentary privilege in this way? One lesson of the Newsnight investigation was that if you divulge enough of a clue about the suspect’s identity ‘senior aid to a former Prime Minister’ a whole category of people are smeared, a thousand hares are set running on Twitter and people’s lives risk being ruined. Watson is deputy chairman of the Labour Party and his boss, chairman Harriet Harman, has just been on BBC Sunday Politics. Here’s the full exchange:
Andrew Neil asked if she was satisfied that the quality of Watson’s evidence was enough to justify his an intervention in PMQs. It matters, Neil said, that:
‘People don’t make wild an unsubstantiated accusations that result in senior people being accused of things which are wholly false. That has happened, not just with Lord MacAlpine but with other public names who have been smeared terribly on the internet. And the kind of interventions Tom Watson has made in the House has encouraged that.’
Harman responded that: ‘I can’t say, having not seen the information…it’s not for me to evaluate that information.’
If I were Harman, I’d steer clear of this too. It could be that Watson is acting on very strong evidence. But it could also be that the strength of the evidence used by the Deputy Chairman of the Labour Party was no better than that of the Newsnight investigation.
Now, I have no great love for Watson. But I genuinely do not believe he set out just to smear Tories — he’d be charged with wasting police time if his evidence was that flimsy. No.10 is taking his claims seriously. Watson may yet be proven right — but, even if so, sensationalising such an accusation by making it on live TV has unintended consequences. Child abuse accusations were potent enough in the pre-Twitter era: now, their toxicity has been multiplied in a way that I suspect even Watson did not expect. There is not much good to come from any of the mess we see unfolding before us this weekend. But I hope that it will, at least, will give MPs reason to think very carefully before making accusations in parliament that they would not make outside it.
PS Watson has blogged an update, saying (in effect) that his aim was to use PMQs as a megaphone to send a message to the Met. He doesn’t say whether he gave any thought to innocent people who would be affected, MacAlpine-style, by his fingering “a senior aide of a former PM”. Watson says nothing about the strength (or otherwise) of his evidence and talks about documents. I wonder: has anyone else seen these documents? Watson will, of course, still have copies. If Harman won’t vouch for him, then will anyone else?
PPS In response to the comments: yes, I know that Watson is an attack dog and don’t imagine he’ll worry too much about the Conservatives wrongfully under suspicion as a result of his stunt. But I don’t agree with CoffeeHousers that his sole purpose is to smear Tories. His greater weakness is vanity. He’s in full caped crusader mode (see his blog entitled ‘Ten Days that Shook my World“), and I suspect the sheer drama of a PMQs intervention – and the opportunity of a new campaign – will have been so attractive to him that he would not have thought too closely about the collateral damage. Or what would happen to his reputation if it turns out that he did a Newsnight, and launched a witchhunt with flimsy evidence.