[mp3j track=”chris-bryant.mp3″ title=”Julia Baird interviews British MP Chris Bryant. Play”]
Source: ABC Sunday Profile
JULIA BAIRD: Hello I’m Julia Baird and welcome to Sunday Profile. It’s good to be with you.
The story of Chris Bryant is one of the most extraordinary in British politics. He was once a conservative and is now a Labour MP. He was once an Anglican priest and became the first gay MP to marry in the House of Commons.
The life of Chris Bryant has not been dull.
But his most prominent role to date has been that of crusader against corrupt journalism. For a decade he has fiercely pursued those he considers to blame for the most outrageous incursions into our privacy.
He’s also the arch enemy of the flame haired former editor of News of the World Rebekah Brooks.
Bryant’s political aspirations came very close to an end back in 2003 when a tabloid paper published a photo of him in his underpants which he had sent to someone he met on a gay dating website. Fleet Street reprinted it endlessly.
Bryant says this was deliberate payback from editors who wanted to destroy him for his aggressive questioning of their ethics, intrusion into privacy and payments to police.
But he persisted.
His detractors once called him Tony Blair’s attack poodle.
But since the News of the World scandal resurfaced this year as one of the biggest international stories he’s grown into a full-sized attack dog.
And that’s because his voice has been one of the loudest and clearest in the UK parliament as he has pushed relentlessly and successfully for a series of inquiries into the News Corp phone hacking scandal.
He has not minced his words.
CHRIS BRYANT (in parliament): These are not just the amoral actions of some lone private investigator tied to a rogue News of the World reporter. They are the immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds of an organisation that was appallingly led and had completely lost sight of any idea of decency or shared humanity.
JULIA BAIRD: So far a dozen people have been arrested, a tabloid paper has been closed and hundreds of journalists have been sacked.
But Chris Bryant likens this scandal to a Shakespearean play that is just at intermission.
He joins us from London to tell us what it was that first made him suspicious that there was something rotten in the state of modern journalism.
CHRIS BRYANT: At first I think a lot of people thought, hang on this is a kind of political Westminster bubble kind of issue; that the News of the World was hacking into some celebrities’ phones and some politicians’ phones and frankly who cares about it.
But then when people realised that actually what the News of the World was doing was whenever there was a big story they just immediately wanted a slice of the action, even if that was you know a young girl who’d disappeared and had then been murdered, or two young girls’ families who had their phones hacked when the two girls were raped and then murdered.
And then when on top of that there was the cover-up which was immensely apparent because the police had been paid for information.
The very policeman who was meant to be in charge of investigating the News of the World was busy having dinner with executives at the News of the World on the very day that he was meant to be making a decision about whether to open a new investigation into the News of the World.
That’s when I think people started to think, hang on, there is something rotten here and we need to get to the bottom of it.
I should say incidentally I think you know we in Britain like Shakespearean tragedies. They come in five acts and we’re only in Act III at the moment.
JULIA BAIRD: I would like to come back to the final two acts in a moment and some of the broader implications of the investigations into tabloid journalism in the UK and the rest of the world.
But first of all I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your own story and how you found yourself at the forefront of the fight against News Limited in this instance, against certain parts of tabloid journalism more generally.
Now you’ve been on this case since 2003 at least. You’ve called for a crucial emergency debate in the House of Commons on the hacking scandal most recently as well as the failure of the police to investigate it properly.
Can you tell us how you first became involved in this campaign or began it?
CHRIS BRYANT: Well in one way I’ve always been deeply critical of the, for the sake of short-hand, the Murdoch empire; that is to say of one person having a virtual monopoly of pay television across the whole of the United Kingdom, having virtual monopoly – well a fully monopoly of all first view movie rights, the vast majority of sporting rights, a whole selection of channels and in addition having four national newspapers representing 43 per cent of the newspaper market in the United Kingdom.
I think that that is just simply too much power in one man’s hands. And what happened was that the kind of modus operandi was for the newspapers to be there to protect the commercial interests of the cash cow which was the television end of the empire.
Now that I felt very strongly in my own constituency because for many years until we had full digital rollout 18 months ago in Wales you could not get the majority of BBC or other television services at all unless you went through Murdoch’s Sky operation.
So that was in my constituency absolute monopoly and I always think that absolute monopolies need to be broken up.
And then secondly I had a couple who, in my constituency whose young daughter had a disability which was not an obvious physical disability that you’d be able to spot.
And they were very upset when a local newspaper ran the story and therefore everybody in the school knew all about it. And the child was very upset. She was close to suicidal.
They complained to the Press Complaints Commission in the UK who did absolutely nothing.
So when way back in 2002 the committee that I was on in the House of Commons started an inquiry into the intrusion into people’s private lives, this was one of the things that I wanted to address.
And en route I discovered some instances where the police had been paid for information by newspapers.
JULIA BAIRD: Right and when you’re close to someone who’s been through it themselves or when you go through it yourself, obviously it takes on a completely different dimension as well because you yourself, while you’d been sitting on this committee at the end of 2003 were the victim of a rather unpleasant invasion of your own privacy. I think it was when photos of you in your underwear which came from a gay dating website Gaydar were published in a tabloid newspaper.
CHRIS BRYANT: They didn’t come from a gay dating website as it happens. But that’s part of the story that was…
JULIA BAIRD: It was from a series of emails that came…
CHRIS BRYANT: So what happened was in March 2003 I asked Rebekah Wade who then became Rebekah Brooks when she married again, who was editor of The Sun at the time, have you ever paid police officers for information?
She said yes and tried to say that it was only within the law.
I pointed out that it couldn’t be within the law because that’s suborning a police officer. It’s bribery and corruption.
Move forward six months. Several of the national newspapers then kind of monstered me in this story which related to Gaydar, a gay dating website.
When that storm happens you cannot correct any of the details. You just have to wait until the storm ends.
It was hideous for me. It was hideous for all my family and for all sorts of friends who got, they had their phone messages listened to, they had people turning up on their doorstep. And I don’t suppose I slept for about three months.
I remember a journalist coming up to me at the time who worked for The Mail, one of the other newspapers in the UK. And he said, we will have killed you by Christmas, Mr Bryant.
JULIA BAIRD: Good grief.
CHRIS BRYANT: I don’t think he meant literally. (Laughs)
JULIA BAIRD: No.
CHRIS BRYANT: But he meant politically. And but I mean, but you know I’m enormously grateful to my constituents because in the next general election I increased my majority.
And I think it’s true that sometimes British politicians, we have been too frightened of the newspapers in particular because they can, you know I mean it is absolutely hideous when all that happens. You are a subject of derision and all the rest of it.
And it’s always about, you know you can always monster anybody, literally anybody. You could monster Mother Teresa if you wanted to.
JULIA BAIRD: Some people have.
CHRIS BRYANT: Well indeed, okay. But so my point is basically as a politician you have to be pretty courageous. You have to have thin enough skin to be able to you know hear what people are saying about you and to take criticism. But you have to have thick enough skin to be able to carry on.
JULIA BAIRD: Where were you when you first found out that they were going to be running that story? Did someone call you and say I have to let you know?
CHRIS BRYANT: We’d had a whole load of weird sort of phone calls to the office like people pretending to be police officers and things like that and people who had to deliver things to me, trying to check where I was going to be.
And then it was on Friday lunchtime somebody, as I was getting in the car to go to lunch with a couple of members of staff this woman turned up. And I thought, that is a very posh coat. I don’t think that lady is from this constituency. And so she was door-stepping me from the Mail on Sunday.
JULIA BAIRD: Are you saying that there was some kind of retribution, for the pointiness of comments during that inquiry or during that committee, in your being monstered?
CHRIS BRYANT: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that really.
JULIA BAIRD: Do you think that the photographs would have been published without you kind of asking questions so aggressively?
CHRIS BRYANT: No, no, I don’t think anybody would have stirred up that story.
You know it’s expensive for these newspapers to bother to pursue somebody.
One of the people on the News of the World who’s been arrested this week, as I understand it one said that basically they were in the business of destroying people’s lives.
JULIA BAIRD: So you, they wanted to make…
CHRIS BRYANT: I mean one of the most, sorry, incidentally one of the most bizarre things for me in that time was somebody I’d been out with, I dated – I’m gay in case you hadn’t noticed.
You wouldn’t have noticed on radio I suppose…
JULIA BAIRD: Well this is radio. But yes.
CHRIS BRYANT: (Laughs) Well even looking at me you might not have noticed.
JULIA BAIRD: Yes, no, quite. I’m not suggesting.
CHRIS BRYANT: But no, no. I know you weren’t. But the point I was going to say was that I had dated somebody many years previously and somehow or other the newspapers there had got hold of this – or one of the newspapers had.
And they rang up this guy’s mother and said, did you know about that Chris Bryant was dating your son? And she said I didn’t know that my son was gay.
So in those kind of moments it’s the collateral damage as much as anything else.
So I think of course it’s absolutely right to expose hypocrisy. Investigative journalism is really important.
But I’d never tried to hide anything in my life. I think it was just an attempt to undermine me and remove me as a politician.
JULIA BAIRD: And make a cautionary tale of you perhaps?
CHRIS BRYANT: Mayhap, mayhap. It didn’t work very well.
JULIA BAIRD: Well no, no. It hasn’t, doesn’t seem to have stopped you.
So let’s talk about that committee you were on, the Media, Culture and Sport Select Committee. You said that you had the rather startling confession from Rebekah Brooks at the time to say that they did pay for information.
Now what seems strange, knowing the scandal now and what has since erupted, is that that was not pursued more vigorously at the time with such alarm bells ringing. Why wasn’t more uncovered then?
CHRIS BRYANT: I’ve sort of questioned myself about this because I know I raised it with successive home secretaries on the floor of the House of the Commons and in private meetings and stuff. And they kept on saying, you know, that they had pursued this with the police and the police had assured them that they were looking into it and so on.
But you know one of the things that we had was there was a kind of code of honour between the different newspapers in the UK which was that they would never criticise one another’s way of doing business. And that’s broadly speaking what we had at the time.
Now what has completely changed this year is that now newspapers are prepared to look at one another’s way of doing business. And I think that that’s a really important change because otherwise basically it’s a cartel.
JULIA BAIRD: Well during the committee inquiry which we just discussed you had some rather robust questioning of former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks. What has your relationship been like since then?
CHRIS BRYANT: My personal relationship with Rebekah Brooks?
JULIA BAIRD: Yes.
CHRIS BRYANT: (Laughs) Well I’ve only met her once.
JULIA BAIRD: And what happened then?
CHRIS BRYANT: Well I’ve never, in all my time as an MP I’ve never been invited to a News International or a Sky party. That’s I would say pretty unusual because I think they, broadcasting is a very lobbyacious area of public policy and normally everybody gets invited to everything. Anyway I’ve never been invited to any of these things. I’m not moaning about that. It’s just a fact.
But I was dragged along to a News International party once by a journalist who worked at The Times that I knew.
And as he walked in the door Rebekah Brooks was there and she said, “Ah Mr Bryant, it’s after dark. Shouldn’t you be on Clapham Common?” Which is a well known cruising ground for gay men.
And at that point her then-husband who’s the actor, was the actor Ross Kemp said, “Shut up you homophobic cow.”
I sort of, I mean she wasn’t trying to be witty and funny. She was trying to be nasty and vindictive.
JULIA BAIRD: And what did you say?
CHRIS BRYANT: I just drank as much of Rupert Murdoch’s champagne as I possibly could as a sort of act of revenge.
JULIA BAIRD: You’re on Sunday Profile with Julia Baird and I am talking to British Labour MP Chris Bryant.
In 2009 when you read The Guardian story about the money which had been paid to Professional Footballers’ Association Chairman, Gordon Taylor, to settle a breach of privacy claim to the tune of 700,000 pounds I think it was, you wrote to the Metropolitan Police asking if your name had been mentioned in files relating to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire who was jailed for six months in 2007 for hacking phones for the News of the World.
Now I understand you’re pursuing them personally for collecting information about you through hackers. Now where is this case at now?
CHRIS BRYANT: So basically the police gathered a vast amount of information when they were investigating the hacking of the royal princes’ phones in 2006. And all that information was from this guy Glenn Mulcaire, private investigator.
And it turns out that he was a remarkably assiduous sort of note keeper and kept notes of all his crimes. And these consist of hundreds and hundreds of pages of material on people.
And I wrote on the off-chance to find out whether I was one of the people included in all of that because there had been some weird stuff that had happened back in 2003 in relation to my phone and people turning up and door-stepping and stuff.
And at first the police refused to tell me. And then they said there was a single piece of paper with my name on it but they still refused to show me the material.
And eventually once the bigger campaign got rolling this year the new police investigation came to show me the material. And it’s two sheets of paper with a whole load of detail which could only really have been garnered, including 23 mobile phone numbers, could only have been garnered by listening to answer phone messages.
But in order to force that and to be shown that I had to go to court to question the police’s decision. And the police are still objecting to that.
And secondly I’m now suing the News Group newspapers who own the News of the World as are several other people.
And it’s because of all those civil actions that all the material has started to come out because the police had decided to close all the investigation five years ago, four years ago, not do any more, not bother to contact the vast majority of victims.
And because they did that the News of the World got away with this line that there was just one rogue reporter and that it wasn’t endemic in the newspaper. But now we’ve seen 12 people have been arrested this year.
JULIA BAIRD: So what do you believe is still being covered up and by whom?
CHRIS BRYANT: The attempt was to cover up the fact that you know senior executives at the newspaper knew about the payment to police officers and new about the whole system of phone hacking and that significant other figures in the newspaper were engaged in the practice as well and actually managed this private investigator and set him on to pursue individual people.
And for ages we had the police saying, without ever having looked at the evidence that they had in their own vaults as it were, that there were just a handful of victims and it was just one rogue reporter. All of that is now patently, completely and utterly untrue.
And one thing that makes me really angry is there are at least 3,800 victims. It’s, so far the police have managed to contact something like 220, 230 of those. It’s going to take a very long time and it’s going to be very expensive.
JULIA BAIRD: But do you believe all of this, this story and these practices, goes beyond News Corp?
CHRIS BRYANT: Well it’s perfectly possible that it did. The problem is that thus far all I’ve heard in relation to any of the other newspapers is hearsay. I certainly find it difficult…
JULIA BAIRD: Isn’t there some, I’m sorry Mr Bryant, isn’t there some evidence with regards to the Trinity Group?
CHRIS BRYANT: Trinity Mirror?
JULIA BAIRD: Yes.
CHRIS BRYANT: Well Piers Morgan has written stuff in his diaries which on the face of it looks pretty dodgy. But that’s not the kind of hard evidence that we have in the case of the News of the World where there are transcripts of phone calls, where there are you know hundreds of pieces of paper with names and telephone numbers and you know 34 minutes, four minutes, and invoices and a paper trail basically.
That’s what you need for the police to be able to investigate coherently it seems to me.
And now if there is that evidence for The Mirror then, or for that matter the paper which I think is far more likely for it to have been endemic, namely The Mail and The Mail on Sunday, then on of course I’d pursue that. But I’ve yet to be shown it.
There’s one other element to the News of the World which I think has been particularly sludgy if you like, which is that it’s the relationship between the newspapers and the politics of British broadcasting.
So I think for instance one of the biggest scandals, and nobody ever refers to it as such, is the fact that the secretary of state, the government minister who was in charge of broadcasting and newspapers had her phone hacked systematically for months and months and months.
JULIA BAIRD: Right.
CHRIS BRYANT: Now that it seems to me is fundamentally corrupting of the British political system.
JULIA BAIRD: And poses a number of broader questions about that relationship.
CHRIS BRYANT: Yeah because I think you know, I fully understand why Tony Blair wanted to get Rupert Murdoch on board because in the 1992 general election we really hoped we were going to win. And you know it had already been 13 years since we’d last been in power.
And in 1992 The Sun newspaper, one of Murdoch’s newspapers, didn’t just you know have a go at Neil Kinnock. It systematically sought to destroy him. I mean the rumour is that they used to write the libel cheque before they’d even written the copy. And we didn’t want to go through that again.
But once we were in power and once we’d won such enormous majorities I think we should have been more courageous in the way we approached these issues of cross media ownership.
JULIA BAIRD: Right. Now obviously this is a big concern in Australia as well, where Rupert Murdoch comes from. And he controls about three-quarters of the print media here.
If you were an Australian MP what questions would you be asking?
CHRIS BRYANT: Oh I’d be asking, you know, have you ever paid police officers for information (laughs). It’s always a good question. Sometimes people tell the truth.
I’d be looking at stories, I’d be keeping a book of stories that seem to have come from an inexplicable source because all too often I suspect that either the story itself was garnered by listening to people’s mobile phones or else it was confirmed, it was stood up by some surreptitious method.
I’d also ask myself some questions about should we really allow one person to have such a monopoly of, you know, information in any one country?
Now thank God the internet and Twitter and so many other things are making it far more difficult for newspapers to have that, the kind of sway that they used to have.
JULIA BAIRD: Would you support, as an Australian MP, do you think the call of the Leader of the Greens Party, Bob Brown, who holds the balance of power in the Senate, for a full inquiry into the fit and proper test for newspaper proprietors and into ownership?
CHRIS BRYANT: Absolutely. Because it seems to me that the newspapers all too often you know hold, they’ve believed in the last 20 years in feeding the prurience that we are all subject to.
You know we all love a little bit of gossip. And in the last 15, 20 years many national newspapers across the world have moved into that market because they’ve seen it as the most lucrative. And on top of that they’ve put a layer of their own judgementalism.
Now my experience is that most people today may be prurient but they’re not all that judgemental.
And I think if there’s going to be judgementalism thrown from the newspapers then we ought to use our own judgement about whether the kind of practices that, the kind of dark arts that many newspapers have been engaged in disqualify them really from holding those kind of licences.
And incidentally I just, it’s not just about hacking into phones and listening to phone messages and all the rest of it.
I mean we have also had in this country not just the payments to police officers but payments to mobile phone companies, payments to banks.
The information commissioner recently showed that there have been thousands, literally thousands of cases of blagging which is attaining private information to which you have no right, by fraud and deception.
And the most worrying of all I would think to most people that 76 per cent of doctors’ surgeries in this country have virtually no means of protecting the private information regarding your health records.
JULIA BAIRD: What do you think of WikiLeaks then and the way that they obtain information? Because I understand they also have the insurance files of Rupert Murdoch which they’ve threatened to release at various times.
CHRIS BRYANT: I don’t know what an insurance file looks like. But anyway I mean I just don’t think anybody should break the law.
And it’s pretty clear that the laws in virtually every country are extremely robust about this.
You know in the United States of America they also have laws in relation to bribing officials which apply even if the bribery has happened in another country.
And I think that that very well may tackle News Corp back in the United States, because I’m sure that by the end of this year there will be charges laid against very senior people in News International for having known that police officers were paid by them.
JULIA BAIRD: Well you’ve said often that a man who does not pay taxes in a country should not own its media. Do you think there should be a rule confining media ownership in the UK just to British citizens or residents?
CHRIS BRYANT: Broadly speaking yes, except that within the European Union you can’t have rules that prevent an Italian or a Spaniard or whatever. So I would limit it to it has to be somebody who is paying taxes and resident in Europe.
As I’ve said before, at least Berlusconi lives in Italy.
JULIA BAIRD: If you were able to ask just one question directly of Rupert Murdoch what would it be?
CHRIS BRYANT: Why are you so casually violent?
JULIA BAIRD: And what do you mean by that?
CHRIS BRYANT: Well I remember once – I have met Rupert actually. We, the culture committee went to California a few years ago and we had lunch. And I sat next to Rupert.
And he normally wears quite a lot of rings. And he does (banging sound) this a lot (three bangs) all the way through speaking. Just gent… or sort of lets his hand hit the table all the time.
And it was interesting when he was giving evidence before the culture committee quite, you know, the last few weeks, first of all his wife tried to stop him doing it. He’d taken most of his rings off. And secondly…
JULIA BAIRD: You were sitting right behind her weren’t you?
CHRIS BRYANT: Exactly, yeah. So it’s very striking that there is that sort of casual intimidation that he does. And in the end, for me that day it felt like the Wizard of Oz when finally everybody realised that it was just a wizened old man pulling strings behind a curtain.
JULIA BAIRD: Do you think the fact that he is Australian makes a difference to the way Rupert Murdoch is viewed in the UK?
CHRIS BRYANT: No, no. But we, I think we now sort of think of him as being American because he had to become American so as to be able to pursue his financial career in the United States of America.
JULIA BAIRD: I just noticed when I was in London recently much discussion of Murdoch’s outsider status with the odd kind of Australian reference. But if you don’t think it’s substantive I think that’s interesting.
CHRIS BRYANT: I think no (laughs). I mean he’s been, admittedly he’s had to go in through the back door at Number 10. And that you know just emphasises the shadiness of the way that we as a British political establishment have dealt with all these issues. We should have been just straight.
JULIA BAIRD: Chris Bryant, thank you so much for your time.
CHRIS BRYANT: Thank you.
JULIA BAIRD: That was British Labour MP Chris Bryant talking to me, Julia Baird, on Sunday Profile. And thanks for joining us.
If you’d like to read a transcript or listen to the program again or drop us a note you’ll find us at www.abc.net.au.