Dowlers and Hugh Grant expose the rotten core of the British media

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by a Newsnet reporter

The Levenson public inquiry into the standards and ethics of the Britsh press heard shocking testimony on Monday from Sally and Bob Dowler, parents of the murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler, and actor Hugh Grant about the lengths to which the media go in order to obtain a story.

In her calm and dignified testimony, Mrs Dowler told how the family had been given hope that their daughter, then missing, was still alive when she called her mobile phone and got through to her voice messaging.  Previously calls had been refused as Millie’s quota of messages was used up. 

Getting through meant that someone had entered the account and cleared old messages.  But the family’s elation was short-lived, as the realisation dawned that the messages had been cruelly deleted by someone acting on behalf of the News of the World.  

Mrs Dowler told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that she did not sleep for three nights after police told her private investigator Mulcaire had hacked her daughter’s phone while working for the newspaper.

Mrs Dowler then described a private and intensely emotional walk with her husband to follow their daughter’s last steps.  To Mrs Dowler’s horror the following Sunday photographs of the couple during their walk appeared in the News of the World.  The photographs had apparently been taken from some distance away with a telephoto lens.  

However Greg Mulcaire denied that he had deleted messages from Milly Dowler’s phone.  Sarah Webb, Mr Mulcaire’s solicitor, said in a statement that Mr Mulcaire had expressed his “sincere personal sympathy” for the Dowlers but could not say much because of the ongoing police investigation into hacking.  She added: “He confirms that he did not delete messages and had no reason to do so.”

Also appearing before the enquiry was the actor Hugh Grant, who has campaigned against press intrusion for some years.  Mr Grant called on Britain “to stand up to bullying” newspapers.  Mr Grant claimed that press intrusion, phone hacking and illegal information gathering was far more widespread than the News of the World.  For the first time in public Mr Grant made the specific accusation that the Mail on Sunday had listened to his voicemails.

In 2006 the Operation Motorman report highlighted evidence of widespread illegal information gathering amongst the British press and made a number of specific actions to take in order to counter the illegal trade in information.  The then Labour government took no action on the Information Commissioner’s report, kicking the issue into the long grass.  The incoming Coalition government equally failed to take action when it came into power.  

Since the News of the World scandal broke, focus has been on News International publications, however Mr Grant’s accusation is the first specific allegation to be made in public that another newspaper group was involved in phone hacking.

The actor claimed that a “bizarre” article in the newspaper in February 2007 could only have come from hacking his phone. The story concerned the actor’s relationship with then-girlfriend Jemima Khan, and alleged that the relationship was in difficulty because of Mr Grant’s “late night phone calls with a plummy-voiced studio executive”.

Mr Grant said he believed that the only possible source for the article was messages left on his phone by the assistant of a Holywood production executive.  The assistant’s voice, said Mr Grant, could be “only be described as plummy”.  “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,” he added.  

A spokesman for the Mail on Sunday denied the allegation saying: “The Mail on Sunday utterly refutes Hugh Grant’s claim that they got any story as a result of phone hacking.

“In fact in the case of the story Mr Grant refers to the information came from a freelance journalist who had been told by a source who was regularly speaking to Jemima Khan.”

Commenting Hugh Grant’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry– SNP Westminster spokesperson on Culture and Media, Pete Wishart MP, again urged the inquiry to consider the findings of the Information Commissioner’s Operation Motorman report from December 2006, which revealed over 3,000 breaches of data protection across a range of newspaper titles.

Mr Wishart said:

“The hacking activities by News of the World were utterly reprehensible, and beyond the pale of decency. But we cannot assume that hacking was confined to just one newspaper – Hugh Grant has now provided evidence suggesting that the Mail on Sunday may have hacked into his mobile phone, and we know that the Daily Mail had the largest number of transactions in the Operation Motorman report.

“Westminster has presided over a systematic failure to regulate the press.  A free and vigorous press is a bedrock of our democratic system, but clearly that cannot and must not extend to newspapers acting in violation of the laws of the land, which is what has been allowed to happen for years – despite the Operation Motorman report in 2006.”