Liverpool—Mechanical applause is the normal soundtrack for British political party conferences, and when Ed Miliband delivers his speech to the Labour faithful this afternoon he can expect a response every bit as rousing as the homage given to the Beloved Leader Kim Jong Il at his party conference. But the sighs that wafted towards the speaker at last night’s panel on “Hacking, privacy, libel and the future of the press” were of another order entirely. “Isn’t he goooorgeous?” said the distinguished campaigner for prisoner’s rights seated a few places from your faithful correspondent. Like all Hollywood stars, actor Hugh Grant looks slightly diminished off screen, but the glamour that remained was clearly enough not only to fill the room but to delight his audience, even though he opened his remarks with a scolding.
“Your years of association as a party with the Murdoch press—I’m not really sure that suited you. I’m not sure that was your best look,” Grant told the delegates. The actor, who addressed a similar meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference last week, and is scheduled to speak to the Conservatives on the same topic next week, said the other panelists “dragged me along as a kind of bait.” That is far too modest. In fact, Grant has been not only the handsome face of phone-hacking victims in Britain but one of the most agile and aggressive campaigners mobilizing public opinion in Britain—first to oppose Rupert Murdoch’s plan to buy the remaining shares of the satellite broadcasting company BSkyB and then to demand a public inquiry into illegal invasions of privacy and the conduct of news organizations, phone companies, politicians and the police.
That inquiry, chaired by Sir Brian Leveson, a senior judge, is already beginning its work. “I suspect that an awful lot of dirt will come out very quickly,” said Grant. Ivan Lewis, the shadow culture minister, promised his support for laws limiting cross-media ownership. But Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, which organized last night’s meeting, warned that while Murdoch’s News of the World may have been the most egregious offender, “this is not just about one newspaper or one proprieter. This is about a very damaged culture.”
Showing the steel behind his smile, Grant reminded his audience that in June Miliband had joined in the revelries at Murdoch’s garden party. But he also congratulated the Labour leader on being “the first…to snip the umbilical cord with Voldemort.” Miliband’s courage had moved Grant from “floating voter to Labour-curious.” However the actor wondered whether “those Labour MPs who sounded so wonderful on July will still be so wonderful when the next election comes around. Don’t let us down!” he urged.