It may be just as well that Hugh Grant fervently believes a film succeeds on its qualities, not on publicity about its stars, because he did his tabloid reputation as a heartless, feather-brained Lothario immense harm in the process of delivering damning testimony on phone-hacking to the Leveson inquiry on Monday.
He was still the diffident, self-deprecating Grant who has won audiences around the world as a light comic actor – not a particularly good one, as he occasionally says himself, though his ad libs in the high court were better than many of his scripts. But he also revealed himself to be thoughtful, articulate, brave in an unheroic way and – at least twice – very kind. No longer the foppish stereotype Brit, more high-minded Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town. How his tabloid tormentors will punish him for this if they can.
It was another of the witnesses, the novelist, feminist and anti-censorship campaigner Joan Smith, who complained that tabloid morality – such as it is – is locked in the straitlaced 1950s while the rest of us have moved on. True, but in court 73 the plentiful girlfriends were rarely identified by name, while postmodern euphemisms like "additional partner" (in the 50s they said "bit on the side") were also deployed.
Keen to protect them from yet more horrid publicity, Grant referred to "girlfriend 1" and "girlfriend 2," yet his gallantry only served to underline how much some things have changed since Queen Victoria set the tone. There was the prostitute in Los Angeles (no names), which showed how absurd it was to claim he traded on his good name – "I've never had a good name". But the film he had just made then still did well, he added.
Asked why he had eventually issued a statement about Ting Lan Hong, the mother of his child, Grant explained it was important to say that she was – and is – "a friend, not a formal girlfriend," lest tabloids claim she had been jilted.
Both of them were hounded, he told the inquiry, in revenge for his new role as scourge of the phone-hackers.
In the murky world of jaw-dropping phone hacks, pre-publication injunctions, New York publicists and paparazzi who drive their cars at grannies in London streets, the only remotely normal people on view yesterday were Bob and Sally Dowler, who came to repeat – yet again – the heart-rending story of the abduction and murder of their daughter Milly in 2002, and of the cruel intrusions they recently learned of by the News of the World.Only once did emotion break through, when Sally Dowler recalled how she had regularly rung Milly's mobile phone and got the familiar automatic message once it was filled up. Then one day, she heard her daughter's voice. Unaware that the hackers had deleted some messages to make space for more, she cried excitedly: "She has picked up her voicemails, Bob, she is alive."
Lord Justice Leveson's court was packed with lawyers, journalists and computer screens, which made it look like a City trading floor, and which – in a way – is the Leveson story: what price privacy, what price the risk of publishing gossip without checking it, what price tip-off fees about the rich and famous that might be worth £5,000 to a police or NHS worker – or the £500,000 (so top injunction solicitor, Graham Shears, told the hearing) for bedding a David Beckham? Allegedly.
By their own description "ordinary people who have no such experience" of the tabloid jungle, the Dowlers proved themselves a level-headed credit to middle Britain. They had decided they must be consistent and courteous when dealing with the media, cut no sweetheart deals for "exclusive" rights and offer no comment unless advised by their (much-praised) police handlers: "If you engage in one question it becomes an interview, doesn't it?" Exactly. Grant,, who has been fending off doorstep encounters for most of the 17 years since Four Weddings and a Funeral, famous, (but only briefly popular in Fleet Street) could hardly have expressed it better – though he did his best for two hours in the witness box. Like all the day's witnesses, he distinguished between excellent British journalism – plenty of that – and tabloids who had lost their ethical moorings in the past 30 years.
Murdoch years, you might say, though no one did and there were repeated efforts to drag the Daily Mail into the frame. Jonathan Caplan QC, the poor sod briefed to represent the Mail group, had asked for what Leveson described – with conscious irony – as a "right of reply". It meant that Robert Jay, counsel for the inquiry, was required to make points on the Mail's behalf.
"You have been very fair to News International and Associated [the Mail]. You told me backstage you were going to bowl me straight balls. If these are straight balls, I'd hate to see your googlies," Grant replied in one of several lapses into irritation which neither Jay's nor Leveson instinctive deference to his celeb status could wholly assuage.
More than once Grant started cross-examining his interrogators. If he hadn't been hacked or betrayed by a hospital tip-off, how could they explain the story or the photo? "How else? Was it my cousin or Ting Lan's Chinese parents who speak no English?" At another, he said his New York publicist offers no advice about media PR in Britain – "it's uncontrollable".
Beyond court 73 Twitter was abuzz with idle speculation that one of the women lawyers present was clearly infatuated with Grant, effortlessly glamorous and with his spectacles off. It serves as a reminder that there is always a market for gossip, even when the star is playing Gary Cooper and has just revealed he wouldn't hand over secret tapes he made of ex-NoW hack Peter McMullan confessing to heinous offences – "too harsh, I didn't want to send him to prison."
Such kindness, but it is not just celebrities whose privacy is ravaged, Grant reminded Leveson. Hundreds of celebs he knows would forgo damages and apologies "if they'd just make an undertaking never to mention their names again". The Dowlers would probably say yes to that too.