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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.