THE BLOG

What Hugh Grant Revealed About Paparazzi and Power

You wouldn't necessarily expect the most interesting journalism of the week to come from a film star and his ex-girlfriend. You wouldn't necessarily expect that either of them could write. And you wouldn't necessarily expect two people who have seen their private lives regularly spattered over the front pages of the red tops, and not always in ways that have been hugely flattering or helpful, to approach the issue of privacy, and of the freedom of the press, with their sense of humour intact.

And you wouldn't, I think we can safely say, without insulting the staff at Britain's worthiest political weekly, necessarily expect to find these things in the New Statesman. But life, as a former News of the World journalist discovered when he opened the copy of the magazine he no doubt rushed, as usual, to snap up, is full of surprises. And this one, involving a film star, a car, a paparazzo and a pub in Dover, is delicious.

I don't know if Hugh Grant did the headline on his piece for the New Statesman, or if it was done by his ex-girlfriend, Jemima Khan, who guest-edited this week's magnificent issue, but "The bugger, bugged", while being gloriously reminiscent of the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral in which a four-letter word that isn't "four" is repeated a lot more than four times, perfectly caught the irony and the sheer, blinding joy of tables turned.

Grant's piece starts, with the kind of self-deprecating irony we've come to associate with the characters he plays, with the breakdown of his "midlife crisis car" in "deepest Kent". It continues with a car journey with the paparazzo who stopped to snap him, and who then offered him a lift. The paparazzo, it turns out, was Paul McMullan, who used to be an investigative journalist at the News of the World. Now, he runs a pub. After making sure he got the pics that would net him a bit of extra pocket money, McMullan invited him to pop in for a pint. Grant was happy to accept. And turned up, for a nice chat, with a wire tap.

The resulting conversation was one of the most gripping I've read in a while. McMullan, who had already talked about phone-hacking at the NOTW in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches, couldn't, like a man with Tourette's, let the subject go. He told Grant that Andy Coulson, who resigned as editor of the paper when the phone-hacking scandal blew up, and then from his "second chance" rehabilitative post as David Cameron's director of communications in January, "knew all about" phone hacking and "regularly ordered it". He told him that Rebekah Brooks, currently the chief executive of News International, did, too. He told him, in effect, that there was a time when anyone with an ounce of sense, or nous, or maybe I mean an eye to any kind of future in journalism, could nip down to Argos and buy a 59-quid scanner, which would enable them to listen in to phone calls made by actors, politicians or (in a memorable case involving tampons) heirs to the throne.

McMullan, like many a pub bore (though you couldn't, on this occasion, accuse him of being boring), was very, very keen to air his inside knowledge. (Inside knowledge, by the way, that Coulson and Brooks deny they shared.) But he was also keen to assert his philosophy about free speech and transparency. Like an Assange manqué, he thought that if you were "transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves" then your thoughts belonged to everyone -- and particularly, of course, to the hack with the scanner. He thought that he and his fellow freedom fighters at the NOTW were what kept "corrupt politicians" from more dastardly acts of corruption, and what ensured that we had a "reasonably fair society", and not one headed by a Gaddafi. He thought that if you were rich, or lived "off your image", which seemed to mean if you lived by doing something like acting, which you couldn't reasonably do while being invisible, you'd lost any right you might ever have had to a private life.

And why was he saying all this? Why, as Grant asked, was he so keen to spill the beans on a practice he clearly thought the linchpin of Western democracy? The answer, of course, was publicity. Publicity for his pub.

Perhaps it's no great surprise that someone who has earned his living by crawling through a sewer, in search of giant turds and tampons, will have found it necessary to argue that digging out other people's turds and tampons, and plastering them all over the pages of what they insist, in spite of its evident inaccuracy as a title, on calling a newspaper, is part of a crusade for justice and truth. Gaddafi, after all, still insists that his own work (as a torturing and murdering dictator) has been vital for his country. But the bigger surprise, or perhaps I should say the even less savoury aspect of this Kent equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, has been the details that emerged about another kind of crawling: the crawling of every prime minister since Margaret Thatcher to a man called Rupert Murdoch.

We knew this. Of course, we knew this. But the fact that David Cameron, according to McMullan, extended his Murdoch-licking duties to include regular socialising (and, he says, horse riding, which may well be a flight of NOTW-style fantasy) with Rebekah Brooks is more depressing than I can say. Cameron, of course, likes rich people. He likes the countryside. He likes power. But you can see why detectives in charge of a case involving phone hacking at a newspaper that's part of the empire run by Brooks, and owned by Murdoch (detectives, by the way, who were also quite keen on dinners with employees from NOTW), might have felt that it was a case they didn't want to pursue with too much passion.

And you can see why Nick Clegg, in an excellent interview by Jemima Khan (who has demonstrated that she is very much more than a "socialite"), would get a bit cagey when the subject came up. "Look," he said, when she mentioned the Oxfordshire dinner parties, "you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave."

Well, Dave, I've "got an issue" with it. I can see how, if you're running a country, you might have to shake hands with the odd murdering dictator, or the odd boss of the odd sewer rat. But what I can't see, what I really can't see, is why you'd have these people as your friends.