It's Not Just the Tabloid Press That's on Trial

When people rush out to buy newspapers that plaster the secrets of people's sex lives, and medical records, and interior décor, and unannounced pregnancies, and private walks in their dead daughter's last steps, where do they think they come from?
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It was, in its moving and sometimes funny way, as English as roast beef. First, the suburban couple whose dead daughter's hacked phone messages triggered this inquiry, as modest and dignified as grieving human beings can be. And later, the performance of his life from an actor world famous for his English understatement, but who had decided that understatement was no longer enough.

There was nothing funny, of course, about the Dowlers' testimony to the Leveson Inquiry on Monday, the first time they had spoken publicly about the events that made them think their dead daughter was alive. Sally Dowler didn't, she told the court, sleep for three nights after hearing that her daughter's phone had been hacked. "You replay everything in your mind," she said. She was thinking back, she said, to those moments when she'd thought "something untoward is going on".

"Something untoward" was certainly going on, something that meant she could suddenly hear her daughter's voice on her voicemail, and that someone could print a photograph of a walk that no one except she, her husband, and the police knew about, a walk retracing their daughter's last steps. The photograph, she said, made her "really cross", and so did the fact that whenever she went out of her front door, she "had to be on guard".

But when she met the chairman of the media company whose employees had made her life even more of a hell than it had been before, she wanted to be fair. Rupert Murdoch was, she told the court, "very sincere". She and her husband were, she said, "ordinary people", with "no experience in such a public life situation".

"We tried," she said, and it's hard to hear the words without wanting to cry, "to be as balanced as we could."

You couldn't really describe Hugh John Mungo Grant, as we learnt he's called, as an "ordinary" person. You couldn't really say that he has "no experience" in "a public life situation." If he ever thought that playing a bumbling bachelor in films that turned out to be unexpectedly popular would mean a few staged interviews and photoshoots, and a private life that was free as a bird, he soon learnt he was wrong. You don't, in fact, get all that much more public than having the police mugshot taken of you when you were found performing "a lewd act" in a car with a prostitute splashed on the front pages of papers around the world.

Grant, to be fair, which lots of people don't seem to want to be, including Piers Morgan, who tweeted on Monday that he hoped Nelson Mandela was watching the inquiry, "so he could understand what real persecution is all about," seemed to take the whole thing in his stride. He kept his appointment on an American chat show, which was booked a few days later, and told Jay Leno, with the honesty that seems to have become his trademark, "I think you know in life what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there," he said, "you have it." And when he was invited, on the Larry King show, to come up with some kind of explanation for his behaviour, he wouldn't. "I don't," he said, "have excuses."

On Monday, 16 years after the arrest that made him even more famous, he said it again. "I was arrested," he said, "it was on public record. I totally expected there to be tons of press, a press storm. That happened," he said, "and I have no quarrel with it." What he did have a quarrel with, he went on to say, was the fact that his flat was burgled, and nothing in it stolen, just before a full description of its décor appeared in a tabloid newspaper, and the fact that medical symptoms, reported during a trip to Accident & Emergency, appeared in a tabloid newspaper, and the fact that when a girlfriend was mugged, and they called the police, it was the photographers who came round first.

And the fact that when an ex-girlfriend went into hospital to have his baby, which no one knew about except her parents, who didn't speak English, and his cousin, who he says wouldn't have told anyone, he didn't dare visit his own first child "because of the danger of a leak" bringing a "press storm down." Which, when he couldn't resist "a quick visit," which you can kind of understand, is exactly what happened. Since then, the mother of his child, who never sought the life of a "celebrity," and isn't his partner, and probably didn't plan to have his child, has been unable to leave her home without being chased. Her life, she says, has become "unbearable."

Newspapers, he said, claimed that "celebrities" deserved to have their sex lives exposed because they were trading on false images. "I wasn't aware," he said, "that I was trading on my good name. I've never had a good name. I'm the man who was arrested with a prostitute." He didn't want, he said, to see "the end of popular print journalism," but there was "a section of our press" that had been allowed to become "toxic."

Yes, there is a section of our press that has become "toxic," but this isn't just about the press. When people rush out to buy newspapers that plaster the secrets of people's sex lives, and medical records, and interior décor, and unannounced pregnancies, and private walks in their dead daughter's last steps, where do they think they come from? Do they think the "celebrities" involved are just so thrilled to be "celebrities" that they can't resist phoning tabloid hacks to spill more beans? Do they think it's done on a nice cup of tea and a handshake? Blame the hacks if you like, but what about the "sources," in hospitals, and police stations, and clinics, and hotels, and restaurants, who see any whiff of a "celebrity" life as a fast track to a fast buck?

There is a system for ensuring that people's phones aren't hacked. It's called the law. If the police who were meant to be upholding it had acted on the evidence they had, then quite a lot of this horrible, ugly, shameful exploitation of what ought to have been private grief, and, in Grant's case, private joy, wouldn't have happened. But it wouldn't change a culture that makes "celebrity" a god, and one to be envied, and destroyed.

If Hugh Grant is a King Canute, trying to fend off the lapping tides of an ocean that threatens to drown us, an ocean where every single aspect of the life of anyone you've heard of is public property, then good for him. He's big enough to look after himself, but he isn't, I believe, just thinking of himself. He's thinking of the people who are suddenly thrust into the limelight, and tossed to the lions, or wolves. He's thinking, in fact, in what you might say was quite a plucky English way, of the underdog.

The Leveson Inquiry is about much, much more than the press. It's about what Grant appealed to, and the Dowlers embodied: "Our British sense of decency." It's also about what we used to call fair play.

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