This article titled “Hugh Grant: ‘I warned Osborne that it was a mistake hiring Andy Coulson’” was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 5th October 2011 01.08 UTC
It is not often you get a chance to have a really good discussion about conditional fee agreements and how they play into the Jackson review of civil litigation costs, and it is even less often you get to have that discussion with Hugh Grant.
But since the actor took up the cause of phone hacking, touring the party conferences and meeting party leaders at each, Grant admits he has “mugged up”.
In his early days of righteous anger at the way in which it had intruded into his life, Grant called for the entire tabloid press to be shut down. He also sometimes came across as a man who only wanted publicity on his terms.
Now, attending the Conservative conference to speak at a fringe meeting, and to meet David Cameron, he has refined his take on how to deal with media malfeasance – but has not lost any of his outrage, much of it directed at the Conservatives for trying to airbrush the phone-hacking issue out of the conference.
He reveals that his hatred of News International is longstanding; and indeed before the election he had a bust up with George Osborne over the appointment of Andy Coulson as director of communications at No 10.
“I happened to meet George Osborne at a dinner party before the election. I said: ‘I tell you what, you have made a catastrophic mistake in hiring Coulson.’ And he pooh-poohed me completely. It actually got a bit awkward and our hostess had to calm us down.”
He said he wanted to hear directly from Cameron on why he appointed Coulson, and why the prime minister accepted Coulson’s explanation that a lone rogue employee had hacked phones under his editorship at News of the World.
“I really want to know the answer: did he allow Coulson into No 10, and get involved with the Murdoch empire generally speaking, a) out of naivety b) out of reluctant pragmatism – ‘we know they are monsters but it is the only way to get into power and stay in power’ or c) out of unreluctant pragmatism, ie, this is what politicians weaned on the teeth of spin do?”
He finds it inconceivable that Cameron did not know Coulson had overseen a culture of phone hacking at the paper.
“If I knew – and pretty well everyone I knew, knew – that Coulson had a highly, highly questionable past, then why did not the prime minister? I find it impossible to believe that he did not know.
“My fear is that they just thought: ‘For 20 or 30 years, all this stuff has been left unquestioned, so the people who run the media invasion industry have lived above the law, we are not going to attack them, so none of this stuff will ever come out.’”
Grant sees few signs that the Conservatives regard phone hacking as a priority, pointing out that the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, made no mention of the issue in his conference speech.
“The Conservative party has so many reasons not to have much appetite for this. They have been incredibly close and the more that comes out about this thing, the more egg there is likely to be on their face after they made what I would imagine they realise was a disastrous decision to get into bed with Murdoch in 2007.
“I have been told that up until then, from 2004-07, they said: ‘We are the party that is not going to do this.’”
But he sees little sign that the Conservatives have got the stomach for reform. “The Murdoch press is still there and it must have been a rather cosy feeling to have the Murdoch press behind them. The majority of the British press is right-leaning, so why would the Tory party want to piss them off with media reform?”
Grant doubts News International is truly co-operating with police, and is contemptuous of Murdoch’s performance at the culture select committee. “Speaking as a bad actor, it was easy to spot a bad performance.
“My sources tell me he was as sharp as a tack when they saw him a week or two before. I think all those long delays and dodderiness were phoney.”
He now worries that the outrage over phone hacking will be dissipated by the long Leveson inquiry into the scandal.
“The inquiry, excellent though it may well be, may take a long time; so will these other inquiries and commissions. I am frightened that everything will take a long time and in two or three years’ time, everyone will say: ‘Oh, phone hacking, yes, I vaguely remember that,’ and the whole thing will have lost momentum. I want to keep up momentum.”
After his meeting with Cameron, Grant said: “He did make the right noises but I expected him to make the right noises.
“[I asked him] Are you going to still be walking the walk that you walked back in July? The prime minister’s answer was that he felt that as long as Leveson’s recommendations were not barking he would be up for it. Nice man but we’ll see.”
What of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, both of whom Grant lobbied at their conferences? “They made quite good noises and I liked them personally,” he says, before a trademark pause. “I think, it is hard in 10 minutes. Clegg made quite good noises but slightly depressed me by saying: ‘Hugh, you have got to understand this is not high on people’s agenda, they are worried about their gas bill.’
I do accept that but to me that is not a reason not to get this done. It is a matter of principle.
“I think with politicians there is that danger they are going to think, well, what is going to be popular, what is going to look good on the news, what is going to work in the polls – and forget that in principle this is the right thing to do, there is this great cancer in the heart of our democracy.”
The lack of a proper privacy regime shocks him. “It is the equivalent of never having a law against burglary. You would not tolerate that, but we have allowed people to burgle people’s privacy.”
“The present privacy law – if you want to call it that – which exists within the Human Rights Act is actually fine, and the vast majority of attacks on it – that it suppresses free speech – are specious, coming from the privacy-invading industry.”
But he admits there is a problem with cost, and with ambulance chasers. He then discusses a range of models for a successor to the Press Complaints Commission.
But, he says, it is all taking too long: “After a few drinks at these conferences, I start ranting on about this. We have an elected government, they are not stupid. They can see that there has been appalling abuse, not only of people’s right to privacy, but also our democracy in the sense that a privacy-invading industry has managed to corrupt our police and intimidate our politicians and have our government in their thrall. Just put it right, just put it right.”
The process of turning into a political campaigner in his 50s sounds therapeutic. “It has been quite good for me. It was good for me to use my brain, but I wish I picked a cause that had more natural public sympathy, something to do with animals perhaps, or assisted dying.”
So had he been wasting his life up until now? He pauses. “That is harsh, but yes. If I had been a complete failure actor until the age of 51, I would definitely go along with you but I suppose I have had a few successes. But yes, you are right, I have squandered my life. Thanks a lot.”
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