LONDON — Movie star Hugh Grant delivered a withering attack on Britain’s tabloid press as he told a London courtroom on Monday that he thinks the phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed News Corp. stretched beyond Rupert Murdoch-owned publications.
Earlier during the marathon session of a government-commissioned inquiry into media ethics, Bob and Sally Dowler, the first of five witnesses to testify on Monday, said they clung to hope that their 13-year-old daughter, Milly, was alive after someone working for News of the World deleted voice messages on her phone, freeing up space for new messages.
Revelations by the Guardian newspaper in July that the homicide victim’s telephone had been hacked by the News of the World sent shock waves through Britain’s political, police and media establishments. Within days, News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s News Corp., announced the closure of the 168-year-old tabloid.
Giving his name to the court as Hugh John Mungo Grant, the British actor told the inquiry panel that in 2007, the Mail on Sunday newspaper, owned by Associated Newspapers, ran an article that said his relationship with then-girlfriend Jemima Khan was on the rocks because he was flirting with a “plummy-voiced” woman.
“It was a bizarre story and completely untrue,” Grant told the inquiry, which opened last week and is being televised live.
Grant said no such woman existed, but an English assistant of a movie executive friend would leave joking messages on his machine, and she had a voice “that can only be described as plummy.”
Although he didn’t produce any hard evidence, Grant said: “I cannot for the life of me think of any conceivable source for this story in the Mail on Sunday except those voice messages on my mobile telephone.”
Shortly after his 21 / 2-hour session, the Mail on Sunday said it “utterly refutes” his claims, calling them “mendacious smears.”
Grant also accused the Daily Express, owned by Express Newspapers, and News International’s Sun of illegally accessing his medical records this year after he ended up in the emergency room following a dizzy spell.
Earlier Monday, Sally Dowler said that she and her husband had repeatedly called Milly’s phone in the weeks after she went missing in 2002 but that her voice mail was full. But then one day, “I rang her phone and it clicked through on to her voice mail, so I heard her voice, and I was, it was just like I jumped, ‘She’s picked up her voice mails, Bob! She’s alive!’ ”
After police told her in April this year that Milly’s phone had been hacked, Sally Dowler said, “Literally, I didn’t sleep for about three nights, because you’re replaying everything in your mind and just thinking, ‘Oh, that makes sense now.’ ”
The Dowlers described how a photo of them retracing Milly’s steps appeared in News of the World, leading them to believe their phones were hacked as well.
“How on Earth did they know we were doing that walk, on that day? . . . It just felt like such an intrusion,” Sally Dowler said.
On Monday night, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire issued a statement through his attorney denying that he was the one who deleted messages on Milly Dowler’s phone.
Grant also told the inquiry about a suspicious break-in at his London apartment, shortly after he was arrested with a prostitute in Los Angeles. He said that nothing was stolen, but a detailed description of his apartment soon appeared in a British paper.
For an actor who said he had given only two interviews to the British press in 17 years, Grant was surprisingly candid about his personal life, and he didn’t hide his contempt for what he called the “bullying” tactics deployed by Britain’s tabloid press.
He attacked the paparazzi for hounding Chinese actress Tinglan Hong, the mother of his daughter, and said he issued a statement about their “fleeting affair” because he didn’t want tabloids to assume that she was a jilted lover or that he had dumped her after an unplanned pregnancy.
He said he composed the statement on a film set in Germany. “It was not ideal circumstances. I was dressed as a cannibal at the time,” he joked.
Grant also alleged that the Daily Mail offered an ex-lover of Hong’s nearly $200,000 to sell private photos of Hong.
The Leveson inquiry, established by Prime Minister David Cameron after the Dowler revelations, is expected to conclude by September and could have wide-ranging effects on the industry’s system of self-regulation.
Over the next eight days, the inquiry will hear from 23 witnesses, including actress Sienna Miller; Gerry McCann, the father of Madeleine McCann, a young girl who went missing in 2007; and J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, who is expected to discuss how journalists slipped interview requests into her children’s school bags. Next Monday, Welsh singer Charlotte Church is expected to talk about how the revelation of her father’s affair in News of the World led her mother to attempt suicide.