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The Leveson Inquiry: phone hacking, Milly Dowler and Hugh Grant

In a star-studded and depressing day at the UK inquiry into press standards, actor Hugh Grant and the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler told of their experiences dealing with News of the World’s phone hacking and dodgy press ethics. The Leveson Inquiry is examining British tabloids after the phone-hacking scandal that forced the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s biggest selling masthead.

Testimony from the parents of Dowler — whose voicemail had been hacked and messages deleted giving them false hope Milly was still alive — was long-awaited, since it was this incident that finally drew the public’s attention to the paper’s criminal behaviour.

Milly’s mother, Sally, spoke of her excitement when she first reached Milly’s voicemail after it had previously been full when Milly was still missing. ”I rang her phone. It clicked through onto her voicemail, so I heard her voice and it was just like, ‘she’s picked up her voicemail, Bob, she’s alive!’ When we were told about the hacking, that’s the first thing I thought,” Sally Dowler told the inquiry.

Sally also explained her unease after learning her daughter’s phone had been hacked just as the trial of her murderer began: “As soon as I was told it was about phone hacking, literally I didn’t sleep for about three nights because you replay everything in your mind and just think, ‘oh, that makes sense now, that makes sense’.”

Milly’s father, Bob, also spoke about methods that tabloids go to to get a story, and hoped that the scandal will change the papers’ behaviour: “Given the gravity of what became public … one would sincerely hope that News International and other media organisations would look very carefully at how they procure … information about stories, because obviously the ramifications are very much greater than just an obvious story in the press.”

Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator accused of hacking into Milly’s voicemail and deleting her messages — giving her parents false hope that she was alive and accessing them — denied through his lawyer he deleted Milly’s messages. “He confirms that he did not delete messages and had no reason to do so,” said his solicitor Sarah Webb.

Actor Hugh Grant also gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry overnight. The floppy haired rom-com lead has been vocal in his criticism of phone hacking and the use of unidentified sources in press articles about the lives of famous people, particularly in stories about himself. His criticisms of the British tabloids extended past NotW and encompassed The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday.

Grant noted several stories that had been written about him, including an article in The MoS that said his relationship with ex-girlfriend Jemima Khan was on the rocks because he’d been receiving late-night phone calls from a woman with a “plummy” voice — a woman he says was the personal assistant of a friend.

Grant questioned how the paper would have known he was receiving phone calls. “I would love to hear what the (Mail on Sunday’s) explanation of that is, if it wasn’t phone hacking,” said Grant.

Grant also spoke of how the Daily Mail became aware that he had fathered a child and had visited the mother in hospital shortly after its birth, then hounded him about it (although they did not publish the story). “I think the reason they didn’t publish it was because they would not have looked good to have published it merely on leaked information from a hospital, which is unethical,” Grant told the inquiry.

Associated Newspapers, which owns both the Daily Mail and The MoS, issued a denial, instead calling his allegations “mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media”. It explained instead how The MoS acquired the insider information about the late-night phone calls, saying: “the information came from a freelance journalist who had been told by a source who was regularly speaking to Jemima Khan.”

It also denied that The Daily Mail had information about the birth of his child from an unethical leak at the hospital and said instead that it came from “a source in his showbusiness circle more than two weeks after the birth” and that the paper behaved with “total journalistic propriety.”

Ex-girlfriend Khan was quick to tweet a response to The MoS’ claim: “The “source” close to me must be psychic. The MoS claim that he/she gave them a story I knew nothing about till it was in the paper.”

Back at the inquiry, Grant also rebuked the idea that he needed the media to further his career, recalling several times his infamous 1995 bust with a pr-stitute in a car on Sunset Boulevard. “What made me attractive to other filmmakers was the gazillions Four Weddings and a Funeral made [not publicity],” declared Grant. “A couple of months later I was arrested with a pr-stitute, not very positive press and I was still very hirable.”

Former Daily Mirror editor (yes, the paper accused of hacking by Grant) turned US TV host, Piers Morgan, wasn’t feeling sympathetic to Grant’s plight, tweeting: “I do hope Nelson Mandela was watching Hugh Grant today, so he now understands what real persecution is all about.”

Actors and other fame whores have a right to privacy, but the press also has a right to pen stories about their personal lives since they’ve chosen to live their lives in the public eye, declared Stephen Glover in The Independent:

What he and others want, it seems to me, is publicity on their own terms. If he had shunned the media spotlight, I would entirely respect his position. As it is, he has deliberately purveyed a version of himself which suits him, and is bound to be partial. He is on weak ground if he objects when newspapers publish true information not included in his version, or diametrically opposed to it.

Let’s hope the Leveson Inquiry won’t greatly diminish investigative journalism, because sometimes slightly dodgy media practices are needed to reveal corruption and political and corporate scandals, wrote Alex Bailin in The Guardian:

Leveson will undoubtedly emphasise that the press is not above the law. But it is equally important to recognise that the media does require special protection from the law in order to safeguard genuine investigative journalism. Despite the plethora of criminal offences that apply to the media, there is no general public interest defence. The need for such a defence is not diminished by the fact that most of the conduct Leveson will examine does not come within striking distance of a public interest defence.”

Tomorrow UK actor and comedian Steve Coogan, Australian Mary-Ellen Field (a former assistant to Elle Macpherson) and the mother of Diane Watson, a 15-year old schoolgirl that was stabbed to death 20 years ago, will all give evidence to the Leveson inquiry.

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  • 1
    Oscar Jones
    Posted Tuesday, 22 November 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    What is being revealed in the Leveson Inquiry is quite sickening but hearing local newspaper bosses like John Hartigan and Greg Hywood pontificate as thought they are above it all is equally distressing.

    All newspapers are basically affected by their competition and when standards are lowered (or raised) they respond likewise.

    I repeat-I have been attempting on behalf of an 89 year old woman whose photograph was stolen from a property and then used by the SMH in a ‘sensationalised” tale- with the claims proven to be false via a seperate NSW Supreme Court action and which also meant she could not afford a costly libel action- all entreaties to Fairfax are re-buffed with the arrogance of those who wield unchecked power.

    The article remains on the internet for her family and friends to always see and that is where the damage is done despite a British newspaper printing a front pager retraction of the falsehoods because libel laws are much easier for ordinary citizens to access.

    Yet Hartigan, Hywood and no doubt their employees believe they alone in this country- unlike any other business (they imply they are a public service when they are in it for profit) continually scream they should be allowed to self-regulate.

    Let us not forget that all Australian newspapers ( and visa versa throughout the world) pick up stories on the wires services and publish them without checking.

    Thus a tale of absolute garbage like the great 2008 Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey scandal in which dozens of children were reputedly murdered yet it was all false is relayed to us and when it is discovered to be total tosh we receive not one word of apology (not that we expect it from News Corp) from Fairfax for misleading us and taking our money for printed fiction.

    If someone sold us a dodgy toaster we would have recourse-not so with the media.

  • 2
    Oscar Jones
    Posted Tuesday, 22 November 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    UPDATE :

    I now note that since yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald has removed the photograph that we complained of from it’s website. However the falsehoods remain.

    This just confirms that after 2 years of complaining and meeting a brick wall, it may have taken the Leveson Inquiry and Finkelstein’s media inquiry to get reaction from Fairfax Newspapers despite publisher Peter Fray’s ‘a letter to the reader’ stating : “In 180 years of publishing, The Sydney Morning Herald has never wavered from its core values and promise to its readers”

    One must ask the question : why remove the photograph now after 2 years of inaction ?

    Fairfax still need to answer the question : why did they receive a photograph stolen from an 89 year old woman and publish it for 2 years ?

  • 3
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 22 November 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Our papers are still prattling about non-existent people smuggling.

  • 4
    Verio Browning
    Posted Tuesday, 22 November 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    A couple of points in this article gob smacked me.

    First the quote from the Daily Mirror re Hugh Grant’s supposed attitude towards them being “mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media”. That quote could have come straight from the propaganda factories of any old style communist regime, North Korea springing to mind in today’s age. Which then leads to the thought that really, what we are confronting in the form of the Murdoch media is a form of totalitarianism.

    Secondly, the tweet from Piers Morgan “I do hope Nelson Mandela was watching Hugh Grant today, so he now understands what real persecution is all about.” comes across to me as extremely petty and small minded. It appears that Morgan and his ilk feel that only industrial scale persecution done by states is reprehensible. The question then springs to mind, does he feel that the persecution handed out by a stand over man justifiable? One must feel that he does as it certainly is not in the degree that Nelson Mandela suffered. Or does he feel that certain sections of society should be allowed to persecute because they have, in his eyes, a higher calling to do so? All in all this tweet just demonstrated his complete lack of logic and low ethical stance. Straw men being created by a straw man.

    This whole affair demonstrates the absolute lack of faith, trust and integrity certain sections of the media have to society as a whole.

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