The editor in chief of the Daily Mail has defended a statement accusing Hugh Grant of “mendacious smears” against his newspapers.
Paul Dacre said Grant had attempted to discredit Associated Newspapers, owners of the Mail and Mail on Sunday, by telling the Leveson Inquiry he believed his phone had been hacked by journalists.
Dacre said the claims could have been devastating to reputation of his company.
He added: “My newspapers would have been smeared and I wasn’t prepared to allow that.”
The editor repeatedly told the inquiry that Grant had been happy to discuss intimate details with the press when promoting films and “invaded his own privacy with great proficiency”.
David Sherborne, representing the core participant victims, said the editor had contradicted articles published in the Mail over a number of years claiming the actor hated press attention.
Dacre also accused the actor, the Hacked Off campaign and the Media Standards Trust of attempting to “hijack” the inquiry in a “highly calculated attempt” to wound his company.
Hacked Off released a statement which read: “The Hacked Off campaign and the Media Standards Trust categorically refute Paul Dacre’s baseless accusations that we have “attempted to hijack” the Leveson Inquiry by somehow putting pressure on Hugh Grant, a supporter of the Hacked Off campaign, to “wound” Associated Newspapers at the time Mr Grant gave oral evidence to the Inquiry.”
Lord Justice Leveson said: “I’m not going to allow Mr Grant… to face further complaints about him which he can’t respond to, other than in the public domain in some other way.”
Grant said he believed a Mail on Sunday article published in 2007 relied on misrepresented information obtained from his voicemail service, when he gave evidence to the inquiry last year. The article claimed a “plummy-voiced woman” was responsible for the demise of Grant’s relationship with Jemima Khan, who has firmly denied a source close to her leaked the story to a journalist.
He also described how press interest in the birth of his daughter last year resulted in the harassment of the child’s mother Tinglan Hong. Dacre said the paper had a right to make legitimate enquires into the birth because of Grant’s celebrity status.
Dacre complained witnesses had given a partial view of Mail titles and the lines of questioning by Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, had painted a “bleak picture” of his newspapers by highlighting rare examples of bad practice.
The chairman implied the editor and Liz Hartley, head of editorial legal at Associated Newspapers, will be recalled to answer further questions on the evidence and supplementary statement provided by Grant.
Dacre, also chairman of the PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, said he advocated a register of accredited journalists with press cards acting as an “essential kite mark” for ethical journalism, ensuring membership to a new press regulator.
He said: “The key would be to make the cards available only to members of print newsgathering organisations or magazines who have signed up the new body and its code… The public at large would know journalists carrying such cards are bone fide operators committed to a set of standards and a body to who complaints can be made.”
He added: “I think the beauty of the system, the attraction of the system, is it will be the newspaper industry registering and disciplining journalists, not the state.”
Dacre said he was worried about how to ensure publishers like Richard Desmond joined self-regulation.
He added: “By and large Mr Desmond, and this is not a Punch and Judy show, he doesn’t produce that kind of journalism – with the exception of the McCanns it’s more celebrity bland journalism – that would end up in this court or arbitration model.”
According to Dacre, a firm definition of the public interest, which all newspapers in the system could subscribe to would be vital.
He defended the use of Steve Whittamore, saying that virtually all newspapers had employeed the private investigator and it had been seen as a way of getting phone numbers quickly.
He said: There was a very hazy under of how the Data Protection Act worked and this was seen as a very quick way of obtaining phone numbers and addresses… we didn’t believe it was illegal.
“That information could be all obtained legally but it would take time… time is everything in journalism.”
He added: “When I did know the extent of it [in 2007] I moved decisively and ruthlessly to stamp it out. Other newspapers didn’t and we did.”
The editor responded to the evidence given to the inquiry by Baroness Hollins last week. She described press intrusion suffered by her family following an attack on her daughter Abigail Witchalls, who was stabbed in the neck and paralysed from the neck down in 2005.
He said it was an extraordinary story, and denied a story published in the Mail linking the attack on her daughter with a robbery and beating of her disabled son in 2001, had intruded on the family’s grief. Jay called the two incidents “tragic coincidences”.
Dacre defended columnist Jan Moir over an article about the death of singer Stephen Gately, saying she was allowed to have her own views. He told the inquiry “there isn’t a homophobic bone in [her] body”
He said standards had slipped over the Mail’s coverage of Chris Jefferies, the landlord of murder victim Joanna Yeates, but said it had been less offensive than that of other newspapers.
Leveson pointed out a snowball effect had been created by the press in the McCann and Jefferies cases.
Dacre praised the owners of Associated Newspapers, the Rothermere family, for allowing him editorial independence. He told the inquiry he was proud of the Mail’s campaign to jail those responsible for the racially-motivated murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1997.