The actor’s name is associated with many things—English charm (Hugh Grant can “twinkle for Britain,” the screenwriter and director Richard Curtis told me as I researched this piece about Grant’s on- and off-screen rival Colin Firth); a weakness for beautiful women including Elizabeth Hurley and Jemima Khan; and a weakness for less beautiful women. What Grant hasn’t got a reputation for is acting. Trapped in repetitive iterations of the sweetly hopeless Brit romantic lead, he’s rarely been given the chance to let his inner demons dance, though there were glimmerings of the mordantly funny, sharply intelligent man he’s reputed to be in real life in his impersonation of Daniel Cleaver in the Bridget Jones movies.
So it was left to his former girlfriend Khan to give Grant a role worthy of his talents: as an undercover reporter for Britain’s left-leaning political journal New Statesman. Khan herself has been trying on a role more worthy of her talents, mutating from daughter-of (mega-wealthy financier and political eccentric James Goldsmith) ex-wife-of (Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan) status to human rights activist. It was her support for Julian Assange that inspired the New Statesman‘s editor Jason Cowley to offer her a guest editorship at the magazine. She used the opportunity to commission Grant to write a piece about a subject close to their hearts: Britain’s viciously competitive tabloid culture and its use of illegal techniques to secure celebrity scoops.
It’s also a subject making headlines in Britain: the news is top of the news—well, for some media outlets. In 2009 the full panoply of British press followed the lead of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in exposing abuses by politicians of a lax parliamentary expenses regimen. There’s notably less enthusiasm for exposing the illicit and sometimes illegal activities of the press and the skein of relationships with police and political spin doctors that afforded the press protection in these activities. But thanks to investigative work led by The Guardian and New York Times and joined by other publications including the New Statesman, that protection has begun to crumble. Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief, Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, the Sunday tabloid found to have hacked the mobile phones of British royals and aides, resigned in January. Just this weekend, the tabloid—its thirst for scandal long ago earned it the nickname News of the Screws—issued an apology, admitting that there were more victims of the hacking than its executives had owned up to. The newspaper and its parent company News Corp are involved in a frantic damage limitation exercise, to avoid court action, spiraling damages and disruption of company business and ambitions.
Enter Hugh Grant, equipped with a concealed recording device. His target: Paul McMullan, a former journalist for the News of the World, now a freelancer and publican. Last December, Grant’s car broke down on a remote stretch of road. McMullan gave him a ride and also prevailed on Grant to pose for a photograph “just for the wall of the pub” that duly appeared in the mass-market Mail on Sunday, absolving Grant of any lingering sense of gratitude to his rescuer. The actor returned to the pub and engaged McMullan in a conversation that laid bare in a way that even the painstaking work of seasoned professionals at The Guardian had not been able to do the swirling resentments that underpin tabloid bad behavior. Here’s an excerpt:
Grant: But [hacking phones of] celebrities you would justify because they’re rich?
McMullan: Yeah. I mean, if you don’t like it, you’ve just got to get off the stage. It’ll do wonders.
Grant: So I should have given up acting?
McMullan: If you live off your image, you can’t really complain about someone…
Grant: I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
McMullan: Yeah, but you’re still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn’t know you…
Grant: They don’t give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films.
Significantly McMullan also acknowledges that the News of the World was by no means alone in its transgressions, and suggests that the authorities who might have been expected to curb the culture, encouraged it. Grant won’t win an Oscar for his performance but he deserves a Pulitzer.
His full piece is here.