Hugh Grant: tabloid scrutiny is like living under the Stasi

In the wake of his <em>New Statesman</em> scoop, the actor debates privacy and superinjunctions.

Newsnight tackled the issue of privacy and injunctions last night and its panellists included Hugh Grant, Helen Wood (the prostitute in the Rooney case), the journalist Fraser Nelson and the lawyer Charlotte Harris.

"I don't have many strongly held beliefs but I do believe in human rights . . . and a very basic right is the right to privacy," said Grant. "I do think it is a massive scandal . . . that, for a number of years now, our tabloid newspapers have been able to invade privacy without much recourse.

"Some cases [are] for good reason but many of the celebrity exposés are purely for profit, so to me there's no distinction between mugging someone for their wallet and their watch and selling it on the street and mugging them for their privacy and selling it in a newspaper."

Asked by Emily Maitlis how tabloid scrutiny affects his life, Grant said:

It's a bit like living under the Stasi. You never know if there's a long lens in the bushes at the end of my road . . . I've had my phone hacked -- the police have told me that now. They're always looking for anyone you might have been in contact with, any hotel you might have stayed at -- they might go and talk to them, try to pay them off. I'm not a perfect person by any means but it doesn't feel right that, just because you've had a bit of success, in this country one of your most basic human rights is removed.

Grant added that he was "very pleased with this whole injunction business" , as without a steady diet of celebrity kiss'n'tells, tabloids would go out of business. "There's very little journalism done in those papers now," he said. "It's mainly stealing successful people's privacy and selling it."

The Spectator editor (and News of the World columnist) Fraser Nelson then tried to argue that the press was already effectively regulated by the PCC. "You can't say that in a serious voice," chipped in Grant.

Nelson said that his magazine received "lots" of letters from the regulatory body and took them seriously. Grant was unimpressed: "The PCC is the laughing stock of the world. Utterly toothless."

He said that even in "outrageous" cases, such as when the Mirror printed his medical records, "You might get a tiny little thing saying 'Hugh Grant's complaint against the Mirror has been upheld' on page 96."

Charlotte Harris, a lawyer at Mishcon, backed Grant, saying that the PCC weren't effective -- "and weren't interested in phone-hacking". She said that behind almost every tabloid splash was a cash negotiation of what the story was worth.

The former escort Helen Wood then argued that injunctions were unfair because the man involved was protected while she wasn't -- which sounds like an argument for making the system fairer and making injunctions available to those without tens of thousands of pounds to spare, rather than scrapping them.

Afterwards, it was time for round two of Grant v Nelson, with the actor telling the journalist: "If someone came after your privacy . . . and said Fraser Nelson is getting up to all kinds of mischief with this girl who's dressed as a nun and likes to spank him in a nappy . . ."

"That would never get out, that story," interjected Nelson.

"I don't believe that story either," conceded Grant. "But you would take out an injunction to try to stop it."

It's worth watching the programme in full as the debate is a cracker, with Harris explaining the difference between injunctions and superinjunctions, and Grant admitting, "men are naughty" and complaining of the "successive pussy governments" that have refused to tackle the problem.

Before the discussion, there's also the treat of Kelvin MacKenzie intoning this ominous warning: "I have a piece of information which will rather nicely depth-charge a cabinet minister, probably towards the end of next week when I publish it in my column."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.