The Hugh Grant Tapes

* UPDATE 13/04/11: The New Statesman has now published the full article on their website *

Hugh Grant recently turned the tables on a tabloid journalist by secretly recording more revelations about the News of the World phone hacking affair and writing about them in the New Statesman.

Although it’s got quite a bit of publicity, the more intriguing details of the story don’t appear to have surfaced in the usual outlets.

This could be because the New Statesman have elected to save the full article for their print edition, but if you can I would urge you to read it in full.

Figures such as News International executive Rebekah Brooks, Prime Minister David Cameron, his former spin doctor Andy Coulson and even Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson all feature in what is a riveting tale of an actor delving deep into the murky world of the UK tabloid press.

First, a bit of background.

Since 2006 Britain’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper the News of the World has been caught up in an ongoing scandal involving journalists who interecpted private voicemail messages for stories.

In 2007 the paper’s royal editor went to jail for accessing voicemails belonging to the royal family and the editor Andy Coulson also resigned, before eventually going to work as David Cameron’s spin doctor (and resigning again as the story resurfaced).

Ever since then, questions have been asked about what really went on and how much parent company News International knew about it.

The Guardian and The New York Times have written lengthy stories about the affair, although curiously other UK newspapers have been less than keen on pursuing it as vigorously.

Various high profile figures who claim that their phones were intercepted have brought legal action against the newspaper group owned by Rupert Murdoch, who until now have always denied widespread wrongdoing.

But last week the company did an about turn and offered an astonishing, unreserved apology and compensation to eight people affected, saying:

“Past behaviour at the News of the World in relation to voicemail interception is a matter of genuine regret. It is now apparent that our previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions then were not sufficiently robust.”

For more details check out the lengthy Wikipedia entry ‘News of the World phone hacking affair‘.

But where does Hugh Grant fit into all of this?

Last Christmas his car broke down in Kent and when a former News of the World journalist named Paul McMullan offered him a lift they got into a conversation about the paper’s rather creative approach to getting stories.

In what plays out like a like a comedy hybrid of All the President’s Men (1976) and Notting Hill (1999), Grant then went back to the former journalist’s pub (he’s now a landlord) armed with a hidden tape recorder.

He then transcribed the conversation in an article for the latest issue of The New Statesman magazine, guest edited by his former girlfriend Jemima Khan.

There is something hilarious in the actor exposing a tabloid journalist, especially given his previous run-ins with them.

Imagine the scene. Hugh Grant and a friend go into the pub armed with a secret tape recorder and greet the landlord and former News of the World hack Paul McMullan.

The following highlights from the article would actually make the basis for a decent Grant comeback movie produced by Working Title Films.

But the actor could also consider a career as an investigative reporter as he managed to reveal some eye-opening details.

McMullan claims Andy Coulson knew more than he has so far admitted:

“Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it… He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time”

Then there is the idea put forward that the Daily Mail were also intercepting voice mails:

Grant: … it wasn’t just the News of the World. It was, you know – the Mail?
McMullan: Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers – you’d have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail.

(That certainly puts this recent Mail story in a different light and demonstrates how the paper spun it. In fact, it initially appears McMullan had stitched up Grant, claiming the actor didn’t pay for his drinks. Only little did he know that Grant was several steps ahead of him with a tape recorder in his pocket).

It is then claimed that when the scandal involving Clive Goodman blew up in 2006, the Mail stopped accessing celebrity voice mail.

According to McMullan:

“For about four or five years they’ve absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren’t. They were as dirty as anyone … They had the most money”

There’a a comedy moment when he denies that News International overlord Rupert Murdoch knew about this:

“He’s a funny bloke given that-he owns the Sun and the Screws …quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that carne out … Murdoch was furious: “What are you putting that on our front page for? You’re bringing down the tone of our papers.”

Grant then reminds him that he was promoting the film Nine Months for Fox (the studio owned by Murdoch) at the time the Divine Brown episode blew up in 1995.

Then comes the bit that could’ve been scripted by Richard Curtis:

Grant: So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah [Brooks] have known all this stuff was going on?
McMullan: Good question. You’re not taping, are you?
Grant: [slightly shrill voice] No.
McMullan: Well,yeah.

Just when you thought then things could get any more bizarre, McMullan claims that The Guardian paid him to get a picture of Rebekah Brooks riding horses with David Cameron in Oxfordshire:

“I’ve also doorstepped my ex-boss [Brooks] by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse. The Guardian paid me to do it.”

So a former News of the World hack was paid to snoop on our Prime Minister and a News International executive by The Guardian – the very paper that has led the way in exposing the phone hacking revelations.

But it gets even better.

McMullan claims our Prime Minister dressed up as as The Stig from Top Gear in order to record a message for presenter Jeremy Clarkson‘s 50th birthday party.

As McMullan memorably puts it:

“Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn’t it?”

Then there is this contender for quote of the year:

“So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah for helping him not quite win the election”

I can’t remember the last time a politician thanked someone for helping them ‘not-quite win an election’ but we live in strange times.

Then we get the rumor that a ‘much-loved TV actress in her sixties’ might have once worked as a prostitute, and collusion between the police and the tabloid press:

“So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it’s only a caution it’s not there any more. So that’s the tip …it’s a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policeman to go and check the records …so that’s happening regularly. So the police don’t particularly want to investigate.”

So far, we have celebrities getting their phones intercepted, Hugh Grant putting Colombo to shame, David Cameron dressed as The Stig and a police force that doesn’t want to investigate itself, because they could find themselves to be corrupt.

Is just me or is this the greatest story of the year so far?

But things take a darker turn when Grant asks about possibility of the police re-opening the investigation as McMullan says:

“…20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open that can of worms?”

So if he is right, we basically have a London police force that is about as honest as the bad cops in Serpico (1973)?

More disturbingly, the conversation touches on the possibility that the News of the World intercepted the phones of friends and families of high-profile murder victims:

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s more than likely. It was quite routine.”

If true, the moral depths UK newspapers are sinking to here is truly staggering. But why did McMullan blow the whistle? He says:

“a friend of mine at The Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, “well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of The Guardian, I’ll do anything you like.”

So basically he basically admits it was all about publicity for his pub. Hardly Daniel Ellsberg is he?

On the future of the phone hacking revelations he promises:

“…there’s people who have much better records – my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson”

But what about these tapes, transcripts and other evidence which must have piled up in the offices of journalists ordered to hack into voicemails up and down the land?

Grant: “And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they’ve been destroyed?
McMullan: No, I’m sure they’re saving them till they retire”

I was semi-joking that this whole affair would make a great film, but it is a fantastic morality tale.

Grant and the New Statesman have not only probed where few in the UK newspaper industry have dared to go, but they’ve also provided one of the most entertaining stories in recent memory.

But the great thing is, if this were actually a film, we are still awaiting a dramatic climax.

> New Statesman article
> More on the News International Phone Hacking Affair at Wikipedia