Not long ago, Hugh Grant's luxury sports car broke down on a remote country road in southeast England. When a van slowed down beside him, the actor assumed he'd found a friend. But when a stranger poked a long lens out the driver's window and started snapping, the actor realized his mistake. Grant shouted some bad words at the man, but when offered a lift, grudgingly accepted. There were no taxis around, and he was late.
On the ride into town, the pap introduced himself as Paul McMullan - one of two notorious former tabloid hacks who went on British television last year as whistleblowers in Britain's phone-hacking scandal (in which an ever-growing number of tabloid journalists are accused of breaking into celebrity cellphone voice mails and peddling their scoops in the gutter press, at various times in the past decade).
The story has riveted Britain for the past year. Not only is actress Sienna Miller leading the charge in one of four civil test cases against News of the World, Princes Harry and William have also been named as victims. Moreover, it has affected the country's highest office. Earlier this year, Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron's chief communications director, was forced to step down amid allegations he had known about phone hacking during his tenure as News of the World's editor-in-chief. (In an extra-weird twist, he was subsequently named as a victim as well.)
During the drive into town, McMullan confirmed Grant's suspicion that the actor himself had been a victim of bugging, before going on to boast about his new career as a publican in Dover. Before they parted ways, McMullan asked for another picture, "not for publication," just for the pub wall. The photo predictably showed up, in the Mail on Sunday, with what Grant later described as "a creative version of the encounter."
But Grant didn't get angry; he didn't whine to his agent or call his lawyer or have his publicist issue a denial. Instead, he did something much, much cleverer than that. He got even. And he did it by beating the paparazzo at his own game.
Two weeks ago, Grant published a piece in the New Statesman magazine headlined, quite brilliantly, The Bugger, Bugged. In it, he tells the story of his meeting with McMullan, and his subsequent decision to try his hand at investigative journalism. After being asked to write a book review for the New Statesman, Grant gamely suggested he interview McMullan instead.
On a whim, he then decided to secretly tape their conversation. One spy-pen recording device and a couple of pints at McMullan's bar later, and the pap was papped - a lengthy, edited transcript of their conversation appeared in the magazine, and crashed its website (where you can also listen to the audio). In a matter of hours, it was treated to tweeting more than 10,000 times.
While the revelations in Grant's piece do no exactly constitute an earth-shattering scoop, they do make for a fantastically surreal read. Grant is just as charmingly self-deprecating and effective a journalist as he is an actor. If he ever decides to retire from being an A-list movie star, I'm sure he could land a job at Hello! in no time.
At one point, McMullan actually asks Grant if he's taping him, a question the actor laughs off in what he himself describes as "a slightly shrill voice." And their debate over ethics of tabloid journalism is riveting. McMullan, like so many members of the gutter press, justifies his former trade with the argument that celebrities get rich off their public image, so they lose the right to privacy.
Grant's astonishing counterargument is one only he could have made: "I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films," he tells McMullan. They don't care about your public image, he insists. "They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not."
Grant's decision to turn the tables on his paparazzo was courageous. No, he wasn't Bono crusading for Africa, or Sean Penn playing foreign correspondent in Iran. But he made his point, and the point was a good one: There is no defence for phone hacking and the like. And the people who make it their livelihood, violating the privacy of others purely for money, are, in their own way, more tragic and morally dubious than Lindsay Lohan on a bender.
Grant's act of celebrity citizen journalism is also indicative of a great sea change in the relationship between tabloid media (the hunters) and celebrities (the hunted).
First, social media made it possible for celebrities to bypass the mainstream media in connecting with fans and promoting their causes - think Stephen Fry or Demi Moore. Then, they began to use new media to lash out against their own perceived mistreatment - think of the singer MIA tweeting a New York Times Magazine reporter's cell number to thousands of fans after reading an unflattering profile of herself.
Now, Grant has proved that, given a bit of moxie, a sense of humour and a spy pen, celebrities don't need the media to invade their privacy - they can bloody well invade it for themselves!
And with Coulson tapped to testify as both an accused perpetrator and a possible victim at any future criminal inquiry in the phone-hacking scandal, the lines between celebrity, journalist and spin doctor are well and truly blurred.
I'm not sure about you, but as long as the buggers keep getting bugged, I'll keep watching. As Grant well knows, you can get away with anything so long as it's entertaining.