Playing against type
After appearing in romantic comedies for two decades, Hugh Grant has embraced the challenge of political campaigning – and won’t stop until the battle over press regulation is won
Hugh Grant is such a frequent visitor to the Palace of Westminster these days that the policemen on the gates joke that he should have his own Parliamentary pass. Having given evidence to several Select Committees, attended briefings with MPs and, most recently, sat in the public gallery to watch the Leveson debate, the actor-turned-campaigner is certainly familiar with the House.
Most people probably think Grant is no stranger to Downing Street either, given his star turn in Love Actually, cavorting to the Pointer Sisters and defending the housekeeper’s honour. In fact, the only time he visited the real No.10 was during an arts event under John Major nearly 20 years ago.
Indeed, as a man who once played a fresh-faced, principled Prime Minister called David, Britain’s highest profile Hacked Off activist is more than aware of the difference between art and life. And while accepting that the real ‘David’ (Cameron) has to make difficult choices that don’t lend themselves to Hollywood endings, Grant is determined to keep up the pressure on the PM over implementing Leveson in full.
Despite Cameron’s initially cool response to statutory ‘underpinning’ of an independent press regulator, Grant was encouraged by the Leveson debate in the Chamber. Invited by Zac Goldsmith and George Eustice to watch the wind-up speeches, he was “pleasantly surprised” by the “number of people who had spoken on our side of the argument”. He was heartened too by Maria Miller’s change of tone, suggesting legislation could be on its way if the press didn’t get its act together.
“I’m not an expert in Parliamentary affairs or politics at all, but it seemed to me personally like a little bit of a shift,” he says. “They seemed more hardline on Thursday and suddenly less hardline, significantly less hardline… almost as though, perhaps, they had started to register public opinion.”
Still, Grant is unforgiving about Cameron’s initial rapid response to the Report, especially given his promises “under oath” to come up with a solution to press regulation that would allow him to “look the victims in the eye”.
“To say that over and over again and then within hours of a very mild report being published to turn his back on those victims and jump straight back in between the warm sheets with the newspaper barons, I think was an act that the whole country was aghast at. And I think maybe the Prime Minister and those Tories who are opposed to any kinds of statutory underpinning are beginning to see that the country has rumbled that.”
MPs’ reactions to Grant are as divided as their response to the Leveson Report itself. Some are innately suspicious of his celebrity status, while others praise his bravery in taking on parts of the media they have never dared tackle themselves.
Either way, like any campaigner, he knows Hacked Off needs a Parliamentary majority – and preferably the Prime Minister’s backing – to effect the change it seeks. And that means as many MPs (and peers) as possible.
He accepts his very presence can hinder as well as help the debate. “Throughout this campaign I’m permanently aware of the fact that I’m a completely double edged sword,” he says. “On the one hand it’s very useful that I can get on the telly when our professors at Hacked Off or our lawyers can’t. They [the TV news] just won’t have them, the bastards,” he jokes. “So it’s good that I can get through. But at the same time it’s easy ammunition for the Daily Mail or whatever to say ‘oh this is all about celebrities.’”
“What I’ve personally experienced, I always say, is almost entirely irrelevant. It’s way down at priority number 960. What my family, innocent people around me, family, friends, children, have experienced is much higher up the top 10 or five. But really the top items are what happened to completely innocent or vulnerable people – whether it’s the Dowlers or McCanns or Christopher Jefferies – and above all what happened, in my opinion, to democracy.
“One sounds a bit pompous saying that, but I’ve always been proud of this country being a kind of cradle of democracy and although the press clearly need enough power to be able to hold politicians to account, if they’ve got way too much power they are running the country.”
When asked what motivates him, Grant replies: “It keeps coming back to a basic human decision about whether you go with the good part of yourself – or the perhaps easier part of yourself. Especially when you are up against a very scary enemy, it really is easy to think ‘nah, I just won’t take this on’. It’s been a very defining, a very accurate litmus test I think of people’s substance, whether they are prepared to stand up for what’s right or whether they are going to lie low. And the admiration and respect and affection I feel for people, especially some MPs who’ve had the balls to stand up for what’s right even when the bullies were at their most powerful... in the early days, the Chris Bryants, Tom Watsons, all over the House – and Houses, Lord Fowler, or whoever it was, I feel great personal admiration for them for that. And I also feel a sort of swelling of pride for Parliament.”
He singles out, as a key moment, last year’s Commons debate that effectively stymied News Corp’s bid for Sky. “I think there was that moment in July, I think, they were debating the BSkyB takeover, the moment Ed Miliband stood up and snipped the cord with Murdoch and it was like Parliament snipping the cord with Murdoch. It looked like Parliament again, it looked like something to be really proud of.”
Speaking of Miliband, how did he find all the three party leaders on a personal level when engaging with them on Leveson? “The unifying factor is they are all very charming men actually. But I can’t pretend that I’m not disappointed that in two meetings with the Prime Minster with Hacked Off and one meeting which he had with the non-celebrity victims about three weeks ago, he made no mention at all of the fact that any kind of underpinning in law to an independent regulator would be a sticking point. And I would have expected the Prime Minister to make that clear – he was certainly asked. So that’s disappointing. But the other two have been as good as their word from beginning to end.”
Put to him that the PM may simply have been undecided on the issue until he saw the full report, Grant replies. “I honestly don’t know the answer. One theory is that he may have been undecided and then pressurised by the Goves etcetera. I just don’t know.”
When asked about the free speech argument made forcefully by some MPs, including the PM, the actor replies:
“They [the newspapers] dress themselves in the finery of the free speech argument but the Leveson report represents no threat whatsoever to free speech in any sane, intelligent person’s eyes. In fact it enshrines it. One of the first things he says is let’s put this into law, a first amendment as it were.
““I am very suspicious, as I think the country is, that a lot of the people who argue the free speech case have ulterior motives, whether it’s sucking up to media barons to get yourself elected or to get yourself a good press or whether it’s fear on a personal level. Let’s not underestimate that. That’s been one of the most distressing things to outsiders, to watch individual elected Parliamentarians, to see them being leant on, a little whisper in the ear: ‘you don’t want to go there, you’ve seen what happened to Chris Bryant, you’ve seen what happened to Tom Watson put under surveillance.’”
A few years ago, Grant found himself sitting next to George Osborne at a dinner party hosted by his former girlfriend Jemima Khan. “ I was feeling what Jemima used to call ‘sharky’. I like to take a bite of things occasionally if I’ve not been fed and it was the beginning of some dinner she was giving and there was George Osborne. It was shortly after the Conservatives had hired Andy Coulson and I may have expressed a scepticism that that was a good choice.”
Has he seen Osborne since? “Funnily enough he was having breakfast with me after the Andrew Marr show the other day. We were perfectly civil.”
While Leveson may be over for now, the law continues to work its course. Grant suggests that the ongoing police investigation into phone hacking and police payments may have some more surprises. “I think there’s a lot more stuff that’s going to be revealed, there’ll be more arrests, there’ll be more charges..” he adds, with an air of mystery, “..and in some very surprising places I think - and quite soon.”
Grant says he worries about ‘revenge’ being taken by newspapers against those who taken them on. “That’s the technique, it’s why sadly what is a really important almost sacred function in our democracy - which is journalism - has drifted in some quarters of our press much nearer to protection racket.”
Hacked Off insists it is a genuinely cross-party movement and Grant says he was “made to feel very welcome” at all three conferences this autumn. But as for his own party political views, he is studiedly promiscuous: “As an individual, I can never imagine being able to cram my political thinking into one party schedule – I just can’t do it.
In many ways it would be nice to think I’m definitely a Labour supporter or a Tory or whatever. But I’ve never been able to do it. My personal politics jump all over the place. I mean, I have right wing views, left wing views, so I’m always a little startled by people who can follow party dogma year after year after year.”
Has he voted for all three parties? “I’m afraid my voting has to remain as private as my underpants,” he deadpans.
When it comes to his news source of choice, Grant describes himself as “a bit of a slag – I move around, between print and online, between papers”. His work on the Hacked Off campaign means that “when you start to look at the agenda… it’s difficult to find real truth”, so not surprisingly he takes refuge in Private Eye. Otherwise it’s “the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian – and that makes me sound a bit lefty, which I’m genuinely not. Politically I’m a mess”.
When asked why he first decided to get involved in the hacking affair, the actor says he decided to “reach for the cricket bat” after years of his family suffering at the hands of the media.
“It went in stages. I’ve never pretended there wasn’t a personal element. It’s not so much anything which happened to me which was really very minor and it comes with the territory. But I’ve never pretended I wasn’t pissed off about what might happen to my aged father or the children of non-showbiz girlfriends crying in the back of cars while they’re being chased by paps who are being paid by the Daily Mail. That’s wrong. And you have a choice in that situation of either saying ‘oh that’s life and these are very frightening opponents’ and not do anything or you reach for your cricket bat and say ‘I’m not having that’. So I was always angry about that.
“And I was nauseated during a lot of the last 10 years to go to the sort of glitterati Notting Hill parties and to see everyone kissing arse with Rebekah Brooks, it just seemed wrong. And it seemed wrong to see the axis that was the Murdoch empire and Freud communications apparently running the country.”
“I used to rant about this to people and they’d all roll their eyes and say, ‘Hugh’s lost it’ or ‘he’s drinking too much and gone paranoid’ or something. And then when I had that strange encounter with [ex News of the World journalist] Paul McMullan when I broke down in Kent and he told me all this stuff and I went back and bugged him saying it again and when he confirmed all my suspicions and made me think ‘well I’m not mad’ – that really got me going.
“That was step 2, and step 3 was the Guardian revelations about Milly Dowler. And I realised, as did a small group of like-minded people, that this was an opportunity where for once the country cared about this as well. At that point I was above the parapet and once you’re above the parapet you can’t really get back under.”
So, will he find it difficult, when the campaign is over, to say goodbye to Hacked Off and politics? “I don’t know. I feel my life is in flux,” he admits, and says that “it feels very strange to be worrying about which actress I’m going to be batting my eyelids at instead of ‘how do we keep the 40 Tories onside?’”
More seriously, he says of his whole experience in the hacking campaign: “I won’t pretend it’s not scary but that old cliché.. ‘you need to be challenged to be fulfilled’. It is quite challenging.”
When asked to compare the worlds of cinema and politics, he sounds far more impressed by the latter.
“Here [Parliament]… oddly enough I see principle coming into play and other vested interests and a lot of political sectarianism which I have never really completely understood,” Grant says. “Whereas in Hollywood there’s only one thing that matters and that’s money.”
He’s even prepared to argue against the old adage that politics is just showbusiness for ugly people, insisting with a near straight face: “I’ve met some extremely attractive Parliamentarians...”
So has he been asked to stand for Parliament? Grant pauses, mischievously perhaps, before replying “no.” Nor would he consider a political career.
“No. Much as I, and I mean this, am a fan of what happens here in Parliament, I regret that the authority of Parliament has been eroded over the last 20 or 30 years for whatever reason”. He shoots a glance at his Hacked Off aide. “Jesus, there’s little traps everywhere. I was about say Europe. I swerved it...”
When his aide jokingly suggests that a declaration of Eurosceptism might be worth the support of another 40 Tory MPs, Grant relents: “OK! Europe.”
It’s clear that Parliament has caught his imagination. The House of Lords debate on phone-hacking left him impressed with the “beautiful speaking, even from the people I disagree with: that’s really high quality stuff, and something the country should be proud of.” And as Parliament debate the future of media regulation, Grant believes it has “the opportunity to stand up for itself and restore its authority and pride in an almost unique way”.
So if he won’t stand as a candidate, might he campaign for a party which makes a manifesto promise to legislate on Leveson?
“Well, obviously it won’t come to that because the job will be done in the next few months or next year”. Grant has learnt the art of giving a politician’s answers.
But if the Tories delayed, and the Lib Dems and Labour promised action?
“Yes, I think it would be quite clear which party I wouldn’t be campaigning for in those circumstances, but it would be hard to campaign for both the Lib Dems and Labour – but they would certainly have my support… as far as one can support two parties at once,” he replies.
Grant’s political ambitions may be tempered by the fact that he’s already played the Prime Minister on screen. But he says he didn’t read up for his role in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually.
“One of the reasons I’m such a poor actor is because I don’t do any research,” he begins with typical self-deprecation. “I looked at that part and thought, ‘well, try not to make it too much like Notting Hill or Four Weddings’ and then I made it exactly like Notting Hill and Four Weddings.”
Through the film’s unrelenting mix of romance and laughter, there’s a moment when Grant’s PM stands up to Billy Bob Thornton’s US President. At the height of President George W. Bush’s unpopularity in the UK, cinema audiences cheered.
Even though he says that Curtis “denies that that was ever meant to be a political statement and in an earlier draft it was the French President”, Grant says the response was “not really a surprise” as “an awful lot of people were horrified that we went like good poodles into a war for questionable reasons.”
With ‘a Love Actually moment’ now part of the Westminster lexicon, Grant admits that it must be “very tempting for Prime Ministers to do those moments.”
Tempting, but impossible?
“I often think about how dreadful it must be to be Prime Minister, and how many of their decisions are not between what’s right and what’s wrong but what’s least bad of two bad options,” he adds.
But not when it comes to regulation of the press.
“I see that one as entirely black and white,” Grant replies.