Floppy-haired charmer Hugh Grant turns his hand to journalism in the latest issue of English left-leaner The New Statesman. The new role came to Grant when his ex-girlfriend Jemima Khan (a big deal socialite-turned-activist across the pond) guest-edited the journal and commissioned Grant to write a piece. He chose as his topic the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, a story in which he was personally invested.
The back story is a kind of Hollywood meet-cute gone awry.
Grant writes that late last year, after he broke down “in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent,” a man in a white van pulled over to help him out. But the man was actually Paul McMullan, one of two News of the World whistlebowers who’d revealed details about the practice of phone-hacking at the paper. Recalling the roadside meeting, Grant writes:
when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I’m not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn’t get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.
The two chatted about the phone-hacking as they drove, and at the end McMullan asked if Grant would pose for a photo, just to put up at the pub he now owns in Dover. Needless to say, the picture wound up in a tabloid that weekend.
And so Grant decided to channel his inner James O’Keefe and visited McMullan’s pub with a hidden voice recorder. Grant writes, “It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were.”
The resulting conversation, transcribed as script dialogue in the Statesman, is worth a read for those following the News of the World case—McMullan seems to implicate much of British tabloidery in the phone-hacking scheme. Here’s a highlight:
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they’ve absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren’t. They were as dirty as anyone … They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You’re not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she … took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn’t a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.] It started off as fun - you know, it wasn’t against the law, so why wouldn’t you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone’s got it, other people swap things for it.
A hat-tip to Times’s Catherine Mayer whose report led me to the Statesman piece.