LONDON — It took the hacking of a murdered girl’s phone to make the News of the World scandal explode, but celebrities have wasted no time in using the row to press their own agenda against the tabloids.
Actor Hugh Grant has led the charge by becoming an investigative reporter himself for a day — one newspaper joked that it was his best role yet — and taping a former News of the World journalist saying the practice was widespread.
The recent launch of a “Hacked Off” campaign calling for greater press regulation meanwhile attracted figures including socialite Jemima Khan and former world motorsport chief Max Mosley, himself the victim of a tabloid sting.
Grant “has been eloquent, he has been able to talk about it in such a way that people have been interested and taken notice,” Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust and coordinator of the Hacked Off group, told AFP.
The petition now has more than 8,300 signatures.
Yet there was little real outcry in Britain about phone hacking until July 4 when it was reported that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked and deleted the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl.
The paper has since shut down.
Before that, the jailing of two people in 2007 over the hacking of British royals, and various lawsuits by celebrities including British actors Jude Law and Sienna Miller, attracted relatively little interest from the public.
“Their attitude is, ‘Max Clifford and Sienna Miller use the media and do very well from it, so I won’t lose too much sleep over it,'” publicist Max Clifford told the BBC.
Since the Dowler hacking emerged, however, showbiz figures have found the scandal a useful stick with which to beat their tabloid foes.
Grant, who starred in the 1994 film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, has toured the TV studios in the past fortnight telling how he secretly recorded a conversation with Paul McMullan, a former News of the World journalist.
During the encounter — which Grant wrote about in the New Statesman magazine in April with relatively little fanfare — he said McMullan admitted “industrial scale phone-hacking” at the paper.
On talk shows Grant has since had colourful exchanges with McMullen and other journalists, at one point denying he was bitter about the press after the coverage he received during his 1995 arrest with a Hollywood prostitute.
“If you don’t want to get in the paper keep it in your trousers,” said John Gaunt, a British radio talk show presenter, referring to the incident.
“Cheap and pathetic,” Grant replied.
Another vocal celebrity has been comedian Steve Coogan, who plays the inept chat-show host Alan Partridge on television and has starred in Hollywood movies including “Around the World in 80 Days.”
A victim of phone hacking himself, he also appeared on a television panel show with McMullan, angrily accusing him of being “morally bankrupt”.
McMullan hit back by noting that Coogan had received money for appearing in films including “Night at the Museum” made by 20th Century Fox, owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.
Meanwhile Khan, who is Grant’s former girlfriend, wrote a lengthy account in The Independent newspaper describing the “long, painful process of trying to find out the truth” about how she was hacked.
“The press, police and Parliament have all colluded on the issue of phone hacking,” Khan wrote.
Moore, of the Hacked Off campaign, says he wants “transparency” in the press and a change in the culture of tabloid newsrooms to one that “doesn’t encourage hacking.”
Meanwhile new celebrity lawsuits are coming in. Jude Law on Friday sued The Sun, what is thought to be the first such legal action against Rupert Murdoch’s best-selling daily tabloid.