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’.”
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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.