Hugh Grant’s testimony to the Leveson inquiry, his ferocious denunciation of what he sees as the myths of celebrity hypocrisy and publicity addiction, took me back to the first film I ever reviewed for this paper. It was his romantic comedy Notting Hill, from 1999, starring Julia Roberts as Anna Scott, the impossibly beautiful movie star who comes to London and improbably falls in love with what Joan Collins would call a “civilian”, a non-celebrity. This is Will Thacker, the divorced and lovably rumpled bookshop owner, played by Grant himself. One day, perhaps, Notting Hill will be a set text in media studies classes and historians of the hacking scandal will scrutinise Richard Curtis’s screenplay line by line. Because it turns out to concern exactly what Grant has been talking about this week: the tabloid press, intrusion, publicity, and whether or not celebrities are always asking for it.
Anna figures out that the only way she and Will can meet privately, without the press sniffing it out, is paradoxically for Grant to pretend to be a journalist: bizarrely, he shows up at her press event at a West End hotel and must pose as an interviewer for Horse and Hound magazine, one of a number of journalists all hanging around waiting their turn. And all of this so he and Anna can chat, together, in her hotel suite. It is a funny and chaotic sequence – but the suggestion is clear. However silly they are, these are the good journalists, the responsible interviewers, the basically decent types and that is why Grant’s nice character can get away with impersonating one.
Later, we see the bad journalists. A brutish Brit tabloid somehow finds an old porn film Anna did before she got famous. The paper splatters crass still images all over its pages making Anna look like an exhibitionist. Anna is devastated. Will tries to laugh it off, telling her it’s absurd and that “today’s newspapers will be lining tomorrow’s wastepaper bins”. Anna erupts with rage and the movie has a kind of magnesium-flare of outrage as, incandescent with anger at his naivete, Anna tells him that this kind of story sticks and smears “last for ever”.
And Anna is right. It is only now we have proof that some journalists are prepared to do it to non-celebrities such as Milly Dowler that the industry has been forced to take it seriously. I myself have heard dozens of journalists over the years rehearse this line about, oh, it’s just a bit of fun and it’s just tomorrow’s chip-wrapping. Some journalists even assume their own professional experience means they are entitled to laugh it off because they sort of know what it is like to be monstered. But they don’t – any more than a professional hitman knows what it feels like to be shot.
Grant’s performance for the inquiry was thoughtful and measured – though his fans will have noted the deployment of trademark frowns and hand gestures that Grant will sometimes use in the “serious” part of a scene, often as the prelude to a gag or to a romantic moment. He will look down and then slightly coquettishly up: a fascinating combination, I always think, of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Well, he took a risk in speaking out and has been duly sneered at: Amanda Platell has already taken a catty swipe, and once again, Piers Morgan made an ass of himself on this subject on Twitter, getting it wrong with a jeering and misjudged crack about Nelson Mandela. Grant and Steve Coogan have sought to widen the debate, by pointedly referring to the Mail group. Now, this could be partly because they wish to deflect accusations of hypocrisy for continuing to work for Rupert Murdoch’s film and television companies. But they have a point: the debate has to be industry-wide and perhaps they realise that now is a moment in which they are licensed to speak out.
Do they need the press, though? Perhaps not. Nowadays, stars of the Grant/Coogan calibre are reasonably effectively barricaded from press intrusion and the tabloids now save their energy for the hungry and co-operative wannabes of reality TV. I have spoken to film PRs – exhausted and maddened after organising days of interviews with journalists who they claim are just as drama-queeny as bona-fide showbiz stars – and they mutter that 10-second TV ad spots will get far more bums on seats than some in-depth press interview anyway. So who needs it? Many believe that the whole interview/publicity circuit will melt away, as the stars speak directly to their millions of followers on Twitter.
Grant says he does interviews because, as a good team-player, he is honour-bound to help the film, and to refuse would be monstrous – and that is the reason for press junkets of the sort immortalised in Notting Hill. Well, that could be his motivation. But here I think Grant is a little naive. For many stars, the “interview” is an important part of the performance-portfolio: addressing the public through the page of a magazine or supplement is almost as important as addressing them through the cinema screen. It may not reach the public as widely as is assumed, but it is certainly as good a way as any of keeping yourself visible, and in play, for the next job.
When the famously reclusive director Terrence Malick came to the Cannes film festival this year with his film The Tree of Life, he was criticised for failing to give a press conference. There was also a rumour that ran like wildfire around the festival that, despite this, Malick nonetheless attended a private dinner at Cannes given by Rupert Murdoch, whose company Fox produced his film. Did he? And was he therefore a big fat hypocrite? Not necessarily. He just doesn’t do press: and perhaps in the Web 2.0 age this stance will come to look less eccentric. Murdoch’s own readiness to close the profitable News of the World shows that he himself perhaps thinks that press is a far less important part of his media infotainment empire than we all assumed.
Even if the concept of press publicity could be on the verge of obsolescence, the press reporting that Grant is talking about – the reporting that sets some of the tone for public life and of which he has been on the receiving end – is certainly very important in creating an atmosphere of bullying and cynicism. Grant is basically right, and what has fascinated me since he began to speak publicly on this issue is how people have tried to batter him, turn him into a punchline and generally knock him off his perch, on the grounds of an alleged hypocrisy that he declines to concede.
Clearly some believe that jeering at Grant for his alleged sanctimony is a risk-free way of creating “balanced” coverage of the hacking issue and extending a friendly hand to the still formidable Murdoch in his time of trial. But Grant has stayed, doggedly, on course. He is still there, still speaking out. Whether Platell or Morgan like it or not, he is winning the argument in this debate – winning it on points, perhaps, rather than a knockout, but winning it. This could yet turn out to be the performance of his career’s autumnal phase.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.