After the numerous revelations last summer about phone hacking at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry into media ethics. Lord Justice Leveson began to hear testimony November 14 at the High Court in London; the inquiry is to first investigate the relations among the press, politicians and police, and then consider “unlawful or improper conduct” at News Intenational, the British-based subsidiary of News Corporation that owns the now-defunct NoW, and at other media organizations. Starting today, November 21, the first of those deemed “core participants,” including actor Hugh Grant and the parents of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old British schoolgirl whose phone was hacked by NoW staff, gave testimony before Lord Justice Leveson and a six-member panel.
Grant’s performance was “combative” and he was “regularly challenged” to cite facts to back up his claims. Not only did he detail numerous invasions of his privacy for the past 17 years; he also spoke of a break-in at his apartment in the mid-1990s. While nothing was stolen, specific details about his apartment were reported in the press shortly after. Grant also said that the Daily Mail had paid £125,000 to the ex-lover of Chinese actress Tinglan Hong, the mother of his baby daughter, to sell private photos of her.
Milly Dowler’s parents, Bob and Sally Dowler gave their testimony first. Back in July, it was revealed that messages left on Milly’s voicemail had been deleted after she was missing in 2002. As Sally Dowler made too clear, discovering that messages had been deleted gave them false hope that Milly was still alive:
Sally Dowler… said: “It clicked through on to her voicemail so I heard her voice and [said] ‘she’s picked up her voicemail Bob, she’s alive’.”
She added: “I told my friends: ‘She’s picked up her voicemail, she’s picked up her voicemail.’”
The couple also told the court that a private walk they took seven weeks after their daughter’s disappearance was pictured prominently in the News of the World. They claimed photographers were tipped off about the walk after their own mobile phones were hacked.
Bob Dowler said: “The thing to remember is the walk was nothing to do with Milly’s phone.”
His wife added: “That was our own home phone or own mobile phones.”
Sally Dowler also described a July meeting with Rupert Murdoch, during which the News Corporation chairman and chief executive apologised for the hacking of their daughter’s phone, as “very tense”. She added: “He was very sincere.”
Murdoch met the the Dowlers and their daughter, Gemma, after revelations about the hacking of Milly’s phone surfaced in July. News International has given them £2 million in compensation and is also donating another million pounds to charities of their choice.
Writer Joan Smith, whose phone was hacked while she was in a relationship with Denis MacShane, summed up the entrenched problems with the tabloid press in her testimony:
“The tabloid press seems to live in a 1950s world where everyone is supposed to get married and stay married and anything that happens outside that is a story.
“I think we have a tabloid press which is almost infantile in its attitude towards sex and private life.”
Others who will speak at the inquiry include Harry Potter author JK Rowling; Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of Madeleine McCann, who has been missing since 2007; and actor Steve Coogan, who has compared News International to a “protection racket” that wields negative coverage as a weapon.
Last week, Rupert Murdoch sold about $61.7 million of News Corp. shares; a spokesman for the company declined to comment. While this means that Murdoch has sold off the bulk of his common shareholding, he still remains very much in charge of the company both in terms of manage and financial control. News Corp. shares fell 25 percent over the summer as more revelations about the hacking scandal emerged though the company’s shares are up 12 percent this year.
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