Media Lessons from Hugh Grant

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London Ltd

Hugh Grant has emerged as the unexpected winner of the bitter media war between celebs and newspapers unsparingly unearthed by Britain’s Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK media. As a campaigner in favour of more privacy for celebrities, against the hunting packs of paparazzi which he told the Leveson Inquiry had pursued him and his girlfriends for years (including Ting Lan the mother of his newborn baby), and against journalists hacking into the phones of people in the news, he has done much more than other celebrities who have had their day at the Leveson Inquiry or their day in court.

Unlike the sorry and increasingly demoralised procession of reporters, photographers, private investigators, and newspaper editors, many of whom have had to apologise at the Leveson Inquiry for their own actions or those of their colleagues, his reputation has actually gone up in the public’s estimation.  And definitely in mine. So how has he done it?

Well he has followed basic rules of public relations and media training.  Here are a few of them.

Be prepared - Mastery of your brief

Never do a media interview without being on top of your facts and your supporting arguments.  Bumbling around like Hugh Grant’s  characters in Four Weddings, Notting Hill etc.. will in real life not convince the public that you know what you’re talking about or that you are worth listening to.  So Hugh Grant has gone down the route of showing that he is completely on top of his subject.  And impressively so.  

Of course being intelligent and well educated, he hasn’t found this all that hard. The many people who had dismissed him as just an actor speaking someone else’s lines may have been surprised that he can write his own lines.  However, with his excellent educational background  - he went to a top London grammar school on a scholarship and then to New College, Oxford, where he gained a degree in English - it would be more surprising if he couldn’t write or speak articulately.

In fact Hugh Grant does know what he’s talking about in terms of the media. He  has a long history of battles with newspapers and  has brought several libel actions over the past 17 years challenging what has been written about him. So he’s become something of an expert on privacy law as he has previously successfully sued and won damages both from the now closed down British newspaper ‘Today’ in 1996 and from Associated Newspapers, the owners of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday in 2007.

He won undisclosed damages over claims by the Mail on Sunday which included that his relationship with his former girlfriend Jemima Khan was destroyed by a flirtation with a film executive – described in the paper as ‘a plummy voiced woman’. This is an allegation he has always denied and which he claimed at the Leveson Inquiry could only have been made after journalists had hacked his phone and listened to his phone messages.  

These claims are ‘mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media’ according to Mail Editor in Chief Paul Dacre who was visibly unhappy at  being recalled to the Leveson Inquiry to talk about  this issue.  He said Grant’s allegations were ‘toxic’ and ‘explosive’ and ‘he knew the damage it would cause’. Definitely a 2- 0 win at the Leveson Stadium for Hugh Grant Academicals versus the mighty big league players at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

Always look smart and professional

Wearing a smart suit and tie – never a problem for Hugh-  is always a big asset for a middle-aged man if you want people to think you’re actually intelligent and professional when you appear on camera.  And yes the eternally boyish Hugh Grant is now 51.  Hard to believe I know, but he is wearing very well.  

Anyway - back to his success on TV and Radio - It all used to be so simple for male executives - just wear a suit and tie and you’ll be fine.  But, even now, in these times of more relaxed male dress codes at work, all men and especially middle-aged men, should think long and hard before they go tieless on TV.  Can you afford to look scruffy?  No. You can’t. But you almost certainly will if you don’t wear a tie.  If you still doubt this, it’s  worth taking a moment to reflect that you probably can’t afford or don’t have available to you any of the professional  advice that billionaire businessman Richard Branson gets to achieve his famous  ‘smart but casual ‘ look.  Believe me for ordinary mortals this is much, much, much more difficult than it looks to get away with.  Hugh’s classic look works well for him and it would for a lot of men.

Make it a Campaign and Make Headlines

Hugh Grant didn’t just save it all up for one hit.  He got going on the issue of phone hacking in April 2011 when he carried out his own undercover investigation on the issue for the New Statesman magazine by recording a conversation with a former News of the World journalist spilling the beans on the scale of the practice.

Asked in a BBC interview if there was legitimate public interest in his private life, he said: "There is certainly interest but it's back to the old cliché of what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest. A lot of it is of interest to the public but none of it is in the public interest." In July 2011 he joined the Hacked Off campaign calling for a public inquiry into the activities of the News of the World.

Not only has he made claims directly attacking the media, always a very risky move for a celebrity, and some papers have attacked him for it,  he has backed up his assertions and held his own with intelligent arguments on some of the BBC’s toughest and most prestigious news and political programmes. He appeared on BBC TV’s ‘Question Time’ in July 2011 when the closure of the News of the World was announced and on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme’ in February 2012 after his second appearance at the Leveson Inquiry.

He made an impact not just  because he gave evidence to the continuously televised Leveson Inquiry twice - at the beginning and the end of the section of the inquiry looking into the media – but because he took the opportunity to attack the Mail on Sunday on both occasions.  This made headlines.  He has also given evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee on the media , together with actor Steve Coogan and former Formula One boss, Max Mosley - each of whom has their own criticisms of the media’s coverage of their private lives. More headlines.  Plus - he gave talks at the three main British political party conferences in the autumn of 2011 and wowed them all, whether Liberal Democrat, Labour or Conservative. Yet more headlines and TV reports.

He has seized the opportunity presented by the British press being found out in the phone hacking scandal (with more to come on press payments to police) to run his own campaign in favour of more privacy for celebrities, against the paparazzi, and against journalists hacking into the phones of celebrities.  He has gathered huge criticism from the papers he has attacked – such as the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday – for his allegations that their journalists have hacked into messages on his private phone.  But he has also gathered some grudgingly admiring headlines from the BBC and The Guardian with articles asking whether being a right to privacy campaigner is his best role yet or highlighting his strengths in playing his role as ‘ a loveable toff’ for real.

Show passion and/or enthusiasm

If you give a radio or TV interview you do need to sound interested and either enthusiastic, committed or even passionate about your topic. The audience will not be interested if you are boring or robotic or processed.  Because of his long history of battles with the media, Hugh Grant really does care about the subject of media intrusion. He knows what he’s talking about – see above - and he’s not afraid to put some edge into his interviews and reveal his motives.  

He said in an interview with the influential BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that the Daily Mail was not used to being questioned.  "I can see why they're cross” he said “ because for once someone has had the courage to question their probity and their honesty. "Generally speaking, if anyone does that with a paper like the Daily Mail, however much they may go on about freedom of speech, no one is allowed the freedom of speech to question the Daily Mail.  If you do, you will be trashed. And that's what happened again and again and again to me and anyone else who has dared to question the Daily Mail."

Make it Real – Give Real Life Examples – One  

Hugh Grant’s statement to the Leveson inquiry about harassment by journalists and photographers  was lengthy and vivid, providing plenty of detailed information about how the mother of his newborn daughter and her mother had been harassed and physically threatened by the paparazzi and pressured by journalists. As with some of the statements by other celebrities appearing  at the inquiry, It provides a clear snapshot view of the unpleasant side of a world that the rest of us do not live in.

Make it Real – Give Real Life Examples – Two  

Appropriately for someone whose two dozen films have so far grossed a total of $2.4 billion at the box office, Hugh Grant added a solid note of financial realism at the joint parliamentary committee on phone hacking.  He asserted that just because he was happy to do publicity interviews for his films, that didn't give the press rights over his private life.  "If I sell someone milk for 50p, you wouldn't expect anybody to come and say, 'You slut, now you've got to give me milk for free, forever’."  He added that the British press claimed it had "made" him.  But it hadn't made Four Weddings and a Funeral a success in Latin America, or Japan or the US. "Their hubris is incredible!" 

Make it Real – Give Real Life Examples – Three  

"Publicity is not what you make your living off" he told the Liberal Democrat annual conference in September 2011 where an adoring crowd took photos on their phones and excitedly hung on his words of wisdom as he played to their preconceptions and apologised self-deprecatingly for being ’a political virgin’.

Make your Agenda Clear

In his interview with BBC Radio Today Programme after his second appearance at the Leveson Inquiry he said he would like the Inquiry to result in a new regulatory body, in place of the Press Complaints Commission, with "teeth to sanction newspapers that go wrong".  He denied he was actively giving up information about personal matters while promoting his films.  "When you sit and do an interview are you asked about acting technique or are you asked 'how's your love life, what's it like with Liz Hurley?  You then have a choice. You can be Mr Pompous and say 'I really don't talk about my private life' or you can try and be a good sport and give a jokey answer."

Pre-emptive Strikes

Hugh Grant hasn’t made the mistake of trying to flannel or fudge any embarrassing truths about this private life.  Before he could be asked about it, he told BBC Radio Four Today programme that he had no reputation to lose.  “I’m the guy who was caught with a hooker after all.”  He also told the Joint Parliamentary Committee of the Lords and Commons that he didn't complain about coverage of his encounter with prostitute Divine Brown in Los Angeles in 1995 . "That was on the public record, I've no argument with that. It's not my beef."  He knows it’s a good idea to volunteer a reference to this incident himself in interviews and not wait for the interviewer to raise it. 

Anticipating difficult questions and diminishing their effect by  pre-empting them is one of the most valuable things  you can do when preparing and then delivering  a media interview. If you set the agenda and the context for your difficult issues, you can put things in a much better light than if you are merely responding to an interviewer’s attack.

Media Lessons from Hugh Grant - Really?  Who would have thought it? But needed to be said I feel.

Published 29 February 2012