* Milly Dowler's father appeals to press to curb intrusions
* Hugh Grant says sections of the press turned toxic
By Kate Holton and Alessandra Prentice
LONDON, Nov 21 British tabloid journalists
competing ferociously to secure front-page news believed
themselves untouchable in recent years, losing all sense of
right and wrong and making some public figures afraid to leave
home, an inquiry has heard.
Appearing at a public hearing into media standards,
witnesses including the family of a murder victim, a lawyer and
the actor Hugh Grant said the press had completely lost control
before a phone hacking scandal blew up this year, drawing
attention to media practices.
Grant said that if he ever called police to report a crime,
a photographer would always turn up first. Fear of drawing
attention to a girlfriend meant he had missed the birth of his
child and previous girlfriends had been hounded by
photographers, leaving them terrified.
"A free press is of course a cornerstone of democracy,"
Grant told a packed London court room. "I just think that there
has been a section of our press that has become toxic over the
last 20 or 30 years.
"It's main tactic being bullying, intimidation and
blackmail. And I think it's time that this country found the
courage to stand up to this bully now."
The disclosure in July that phone hacking at Rupert
Murdoch's News of the World had stretched from celebrities to
murder victims provoked a national outcry that led to the
closure of the newspaper.
Within days, his News Corp group withdrew its bid
to buy the 61 percent of broadcaster BSkyB it did not
already own; its British newspaper arm News International shut
the 168-year-old paper and Prime Minister David Cameron ordered
The parents of the murder victim Milly Dowler have become
key figures in the debate about media practices, appearing with
Hollywood stars and other high-profile figures who have suffered
from a ruthless hunt for stories to boost sales.
They described at length how they had to come to terms with
the disappearance of their daughter, while journalists hid in
their garden and photographers caught their most difficult
"It felt like such an intrusion into a really private
grief," Sally Dowler said.
To a silent court room, she told how she had suddenly become
excited during the hunt for her daughter when she realised that
phone messages left on Milly's phone were being deleted -
thinking, falsely, she was still alive.
Bob Dowler said the family had felt hounded and afraid to
leave their home.
Britain's tabloid press has for years been known as highly
aggressive, reporting the most intimiate details between members
of the royal family, politicians and celebrities, prompting
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair to once describe it as a "feral
In its defence, the press says it acts to expose hypocrisy,
where famous figures make a living off a clean role-model image
-- a stance immediately dismissed by Grant and lawyer Graham
Shear, who has acted for famous footballers and entertainers.
Shear described the revelations of press wrongdoing as the
"ultimate in hypocrisy" while Grant disputed that there was ever
any public interest that could justify an investigation into his
"I've never had a good name and it's made absolutely no
difference at all," he said. "I'm the man who was arrested with
a prostitute and the film still made tonnes of money," he added,
referring to a notorious 1995 arrest.
Another witness, columnist Joan Smith, said she had gone
into shock when she saw the lengthy notes made about her. She
described the tabloid press as remorseless.
Last Wednesday, the lawyer representing 51 clients who say
they have suffered at the hands of the press delivered a
withering critique of newspapers. Three of those he represents
say they believed the treatment had contributed to family
members committing suicide or attempting to kill themselves.
Most of the focus of the inquiry so far has fallen on
Murdoch's News International however, lawyer David Sherborne has
made it clear that all papers' activities deserve to be
scrutinised and reformed.
Grant said he believed the Mail on Sunday had hacked into
his phone messages in previous years but had no concrete proof.
A spokesman for the Daily Mail & General Trust's Mail
on Sunday said it "utterly refuted" Grant's allegation.
The inquiry, headed by senior judge Brian Leveson and due to
last a year, will make recommendations that could have a lasting
impact on the industry, lead to tighter media rules or at least
an overhaul of the current system of self-regulation.