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Hugh Grant, aggrieved parents of girl lead tabloid battle

The most public faces of Britain's phone-hacking scandal testify about their experiences with the country's 'cowardly and bullying' tabloid press.

November 21, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob and Sally Dowler, the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly, arrive to attend an inquiry in London into phone hacking and the British press.
Bob and Sally Dowler, the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly, arrive… (Carl Court, AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from London — They couldn't be more different: the handsome, world-famous actor and the quiet parents who endured unspeakable tragedy.

But together they've become the most public faces of Britain's phone-hacking scandal, and on Monday they testified about their run-ins with this country's ferociously competitive tabloid press.

For Hugh Grant, it was the paparazzi who wouldn't stop harassing the mother of his child for photos and the gossip rag that allegedly accessed his phone messages and wrongly concluded that he was cheating on his girlfriend.

For Bob and Sally Dowler, the ordeal was far worse. The couple was misled into thinking that their missing teenage daughter, later found murdered, was still alive because the girl appeared to have listened to her voicemails and deleted some of them.

"She's picked up her voicemails, Bob," Sally Dowler said she told her husband in elation. "She's alive!"

But it was a false hope. A private investigator hired by the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World had allegedly hacked into 13-year-old Milly's cellphone and erased some of her voicemails to free up space for more messages, which were fodder for "exclusives" by the scoop-obsessed tabloid.

The riveting testimony by the Dowlers and Grant came at a judge-led inquiry here into the practices and ethics — or lack of them — of Britain's news media. Launched last week, the inquiry is the direct result of the phone-hacking scandal, which exploded in July when the Dowler family's experience was made public.

Since then, the News of the World has been shuttered and media baron Murdoch's News Corp. has been shaken to its core. The Dowlers, an unassuming family caught in a media maelstrom, have become the symbol of the excesses of a feral tabloid industry.

More surprisingly, Grant has emerged as the spokesman of the anti-hacking campaign, an eloquent advocate who has cornered politicians, scolded editors and debated pundits on the need to crack down on tabloid abuses and regulate the media. It's a role he has attacked with relish.

"He has become the poster boy — the poster man — for this inquiry," said Julia Hobsbawm, head of Editorial Intelligence, a media analysis firm. "Unlike celebrities that have allied themselves with very worthy, very good, but ultimately soft causes, he has jumped into a very complex, very hard debate."

Grant himself once had a brief turn symbolizing bad behavior. He was arrested in Los Angeles in June 1995 and charged with lewd conduct in his car with a woman identified by police as a prostitute — a story that was a tabloid sensation in Britain.

On Monday, the appearance by Grant and the Dowlers at the inquiry was eagerly awaited, their arrival at London's Royal Courts of Justice snapped by photographers and recorded by some of the same media organizations they came to excoriate. Their appearance kicked off days of evidence to come from high-profile figures who say they've been hounded by the press; actress Sienna Miller and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling are expected to testify later this week.

The Dowlers' account of how their grief was compounded by insensitive tabloids provided what one commentator called "the emotional core" of the hacking scandal and the inquiry.

In one poignant moment, Sally Dowler described her shock at finding a photograph of her and her husband in the News of the World, taken without their knowledge during a private walk retracing their missing daughter's footsteps.

"They'd obviously taken the picture with some sort of telephoto lens. How on Earth did they know that we were doing that walk on that day?" she said. "It felt like just such an intrusion."

Milly Dowler went missing in 2002; her body was later found dumped in the woods. A nightclub bouncer was convicted this summer of her murder.

In an unexpected development, Glenn Mulcaire, the private eye whom the News of the World engaged to hack into the cellphones of potentially thousands of people, issued a statement Monday denying that he had deleted the messages from Milly's voicemail. Mulcaire was jailed in 2007 after pleading guilty to illegally accessing messages left for aides to Princes William and Harry.

During his turn as a witness, Grant alternated between issuing testy replies to lawyers' questions and channeling the self-deprecating, ironic Englishman of the type he has made famous in his films.

He called press abuses "scandalous" and rejected suggestions that such tactics as surveillance, entrapment and outright blackmail in pursuit of stories were all part of the game.

"I don't find that lovable and naughty. I find that cowardly and bullying and shocking," Grant said. "And most shocking is that this has been allowed to go on so long with no one putting their hand up and saying, 'Stop.' "

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