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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.