Hugh Grant's 10 myths of tabloid journalism

How the actor rebutted the tabloids at the Leveson inquiry.

Hugh Grant was denied the opportunity to read out his full witness statement at the Leveson inquiry this afternoon. But towards the end of the session, he was given the chance to set out what he believes are "the 10 myths of the popular press". Here they are, together with a summary of Grant's accompanying evidence.

Myth 1: That it is only celebrities and politicians who suffer at the hands of popular papers.

Grant pointed to Christopher Jefferies, Robert Murat and Madeleine McCann's parents as examples of "innocent citizens" who had been "shamelessly monstered" by the British press.

Myth 2: That egregious abuses of privacy happened only at the News of the World.

He compared the claim that hacking only took place at the News of the World to the NoW's now-discredited "rogue reporter" defence. He reminded the inquiry that former NoW journalist Paul McMullan, secretely recorded by Grant for the New Statesman, said that the the biggest payers for hacking in the past were the Daily Mail.

Myth 3: That in attempting to deal with the abuses of some sections of the press you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

He argued that it was easy to distinguish between principled public interest journalism ("the baby") and invasive tabloid journalism ("the bathwater").
"There may be grey areas between these two, but I argue that they are nothing like as grey or as extensive as they are cracked up to be," he said.

Myth 4: That any attempt to regulate the press means we are heading for Zimbabwe.

Grant said that there were "several gradations" between state regulation and self regulation, including "co-regulation" which would see a panel comprised of journalists, non-journalists and experts in the field draw up a code with proper sanctions, fines as well as apologies.

But he insisted that "there has to be a bit of statute right at the back" to prevent papers such as the Daily Express excluding themselves.

Myth 5: That current privacy law under the Human Rights Act muzzles the press.

No one has ever sued the Guardian for breach of privacy, noted Grant, denying that current privacy law gags the press.

He described the tabloid outrage over superinjunctions as "bogus" and "convenient".

Myth 6: That judges always find against the press.

Grant denied that the judiciary was biased in favour of plaintiffs. He highlighted the case of Rio Ferdinand as evidence that judges will rule for the paper if they feel that there is a public interest defence.

Myth 7: Privacy can only ever be a rich man's toy.

Were it only the rich who took legal action against the press, said Grant, the tabloids would not be campaigning so loudly for the abolition of Conditional Fee Arrangements ("no win no fee" arrangements). The abolition of CFA's would deny access to ordinary people, he warned.

If you look at the Dowlers, they would not have been able to prosecute that case without a CFA.

Christopher Jefferies had to use a CFA, Sara Payne the same.

This whole campaign to restrict CFA's has been very heavily pushed by the tabloid press.

Myth 8: That most sex exposes carry a public interest defence.

Grant rejected claims that celebrities such as himself and Ryan Giggs trade on their reputations as "family men". In one of the most memorable passages of the session, he quipped:

I wasn't aware I was trading on my good name, I've never had a good name at all. I'm a man who was arrested with a prostitite and the film still made loads of money. It doesn't matter.

Myth 9: That people like me want to be in the papers, and need them, and therefore our objections to privacy intrusions are hypocritical.

The success of a film is rarely dependent on how much press coverage it receives, Grant told the inquiry. There are thousands of examples of films that received enormous media attention and still failed at the box office.

With reference to his own career, he commented:

What made me attractive to other film makers was the gazillions Four Weddings and a Funeral made.

A couple of months later I was arrested with a prostitute , not very positive press and I was still very hirable.

"Hundreds" of celebrities would happily never be mentioned by a tabloid again, he claimed.

Myth 10: That the tabloid press hacks are just loveable rogues.

Journalists who tap innocent people's phones are cowards and bullies, not loveable rogues, said Grant. Pointing to his support for libel reform, he described himself as "the reverse of a muzzler" but insisted that the licence the tabloid press has had to steal British citizens' privacy "is a scandal that weak governments for too long have allowed to pass."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.