The British tabloids' dirty laundry is getting a full airing this week as actor Hugh Grant and the parents of a slain London schoolgirl provide gripping testimony before a British judge.
Grant appeared Monday before Lord Justice Leveson, who is examining media ethics in Britain.
The actor, whose long list of screen credits include "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "About a Boy," suggested that his cellphone was hacked by the Mail on Sunday newspaper, which is not part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. stable of tabloids. Grant has previously said he believes that operatives of News Corp.'s now-defunct News of the World tabloid also hacked into his cellphone.
The Leveson legal inquiry was set up in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that exploded this past summer after a story in the Guardian newspaper exposed that the cellphone of a missing 13-year-old schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, was hacked by the News Corp.-owned tabloid News of the World.
In his testimony, Grant referenced a February 2007 article in the Mail on Sunday, published by Associated Newspapers Ltd., which claimed that his relationship with then-girlfriend Jemima Khan was in tatters because of his persistent, late-night calls with a "plummy-voiced" studio executive from Warner Bros. Grant said he sued for libel in the case and won damages.
"It was a bizarre story and completely untrue," Grant told Leveson Monday. "Thinking about how they could possibly come up with such a bizarre, left-field story, I realized that although there was no plummy-voiced studio executive from Warner Bros. with whom I had any kind of relationship ... but there was a great friend of mine in Los Angeles who runs a production company, which is associated with Warner Bros., and whose assistant is a charming, married, middle-aged lady, English, who as [it] happens in Hollywood is the person who rings you.
"The executive never rings you, it's always the assistant," Grant said. " 'Hi, we have Jack Bailey on the phone for you.' " So the duty of calling fell to this executive's assistant, whom Grant described as a "nice English girl living in L.A."
"She would leave charming, jokey messages, saying please call this studio executive back," Grant told the inquiry. "And she has a voice that can only be described as plummy. ... I cannot for the life of me think of any conceivable source for this story in the Mail on Sunday except those voicemails on my mobile telephone."
Dowler's parents testified Monday that their grief was exploited when someone from the now-defunct News of the World tabloid hacked into the girl's cellphone and deleted messages. The action led the family to believe that Milly must still be alive when she was, in fact, dead. News Corp. last summer paid the family nearly $5 million in damages.
Actress Sienna Miller and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling are also scheduled to testify this week.
For our dispatches from London, please go to our World Now news blog.
— Meg James
Photo: Hugh Grant testifying Monday before Lord Justice Leveson. Credit: Reuters / Pool Photo