Actor Hugh Grant told a London courtroom Monday about the dark side of celebrity life, describing mysterious break-ins, leaked medical details and hacked voice mails — and laying blame on the entire tabloid press, not just the now-shuttered News of the World.
Grant’s testimony to a judge-led media ethics inquiry capped a tough day for Britain’s beleaguered press. Earlier, the parents of a murdered schoolgirl whose phone was targeted by the tabloid described how the hacking had given them false hope that their daughter was still alive.
Grant said he believes his phone was hacked by Britain’s Mail on Sunday tabloid — the first time he has implicated a newspaper not owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in the wrongdoing.
The actor said a 2007 story about his romantic life in the paper, owned by Murdoch rival Associated Newspapers Ltd., could only have been obtained through eavesdropping on his voice mails.
He said he could not think of any other way the newspaper could have obtained the story alleging that his romance with Jemima Khan was on the rocks because of his conversations with a “plummy voiced” woman the paper identified as a film studio executive.
Grant said there was no such woman, but he did receive voice messages from the assistant of a movie producer friend.
“She would leave charming, joking messages … and she had a voice that can only be described as plummy,” he said.
Grant sued the newspaper for libel and won.
Challenged about whether he had hard evidence, Grant acknowledged he was speculating.
“But … I’d love to hear what the Daily Mail or the Sunday Mail‘s explanation of what that source was if it wasn’t phone hacking,” he said.
Over two and a half hours of testimony, Grant — by turns charming and censorious — described years of tabloid pursuit that began after his breakthrough hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, in 1994. Incidents included a mysterious break-in at his apartment during which nothing was stolen. Descriptions of the apartment later appeared in a tabloid newspaper.
He also said an article published earlier this year in The Sun and Daily Express about his visit to a hospital emergency room was “a gross intrusion of my privacy.”
“I think no one would expect their medical records to be made public or to be appropriated by newspapers for commercial profit,” he said. “That is fundamental to our British sense of decency.”
And he said paparazzi had hounded Tinglan Hong, the mother of Grant’s baby daughter, despite the actor’s efforts to keep his paternity secret. He said he did not attend the baby’s birth in late September, but the next day, “I couldn’t resist a quick visit.”
“There seems to have been a leak from the hospital,” Grant said. “They even knew the fake name she had checked into the hospital under.”
Grant had initially refused to confirm the baby was his, but earlier this month released a statement acknowledging it. He told the inquiry that the statement — intended in part to rebuff claims he had “jilted” Hong, with whom he remains friendly — had been composed during a phone call with his publicist while he was on a film set in Germany.
“It was not ideal circumstances,” Grant said. “I was dressed as a cannibal at the time.”
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the inquiry into media ethics in response to an evolving scandal over phone hacking in Britain. Murdoch shut down the discredited News of the World tabloid in July after evidence emerged that it had routinely eavesdropped on the voice mails of public figures, celebrities and even crime victims in its search for scoops.
The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to the way the media in Britain are regulated.
Grant, who has become an outspoken campaigner against press intrusion, called for a media code of ethics and tougher regulation.
“There has been a section of our press that has been allowed to become toxic over the past 20 or 30 years,” he said, urging Britain to find the courage to stand up to tabloid “bullies.”
Grant is one of a string of high-profile witnesses, including actress Sienna Miller and author J.K. Rowling, who will testify about how they were followed, photographed, entrapped and harassed by journalists from Britain’s tabloids, which collectively sell millions of copies a day.
The first witnesses Monday were the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, whose mobile phone voice mails were hacked after she disappeared in 2002.
Her mother told the inquiry that she believed her missing 13 year old was still alive once she reached the girl’s previously full voice mailbox.
Sally Dowler said when she could finally leave a message on Milly’s voice mail weeks after the girl disappeared, she shouted: “She’s picked up the voice mails! … She’s alive!”
In fact, messages had been deleted by someone working for the News of the World while the Dowlers and police were still searching for Milly, who was later found dead.
The Dowlers said they had been utterly shocked when police told them, much later, that Milly’s phone had been hacked.
Bob Dowler said he recognized immediately that the information was “dynamite.” News that tabloid journalists had targeted not just celebrities but a murdered girl shocked many Britons and triggered a police investigation and media recriminations that are still unfolding.
The Dowlers took the stand together and spoke in quiet, composed voices during their 30 minutes of nationally televised testimony.
They described their shock and anger when a private walk to retrace their missing daughter’s last steps was secretly photographed by the tabloid.
“It just felt like such an intrusion into a really, really private grief moment,” Sally Dowler said. The couple said they later realized that their own phone, as well as their daughter’s, had been hacked.
More than a dozen News of the World journalists and editors have been arrested and several senior Murdoch executives have resigned over the still-evolving scandal. Two top London police officers also lost their jobs, along with Cameron’s media adviser.
Later this week the inquiry will hear from Harry Potter author Rowling, comedian Steve Coogan, actress Miller and former Formula One boss Max Mosley — whose taste for sadomasochism was revealed in a widely publicized News of the World sting.
It’s a courtroom lineup that Britain’s celebrity-obsessed tabloids would love, if only they weren’t the ones in the dock.