In his new role as one half of the middle-aged double act that is headlining an A-list counter-offensive against press intrusion, Steve Coogan was clear about the reason why he enjoys top billing. After years of stories about his foibles and peccadilloes, the comedian argued his "closet is empty of skeletons" and he was therefore "immune" to media onslaught.
Instead, the actor took to the witness box at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards yesterday to spend nearly two hours explaining his iniquitous treatment by British newspapers over nearly two decades.
The Alan Partridge star insisted that he was not making his appearance on the unusual stage of the Royal Courts of Justice as part of a "Steve and Hugh Show" – a reference to fellow tabloid favourite Hugh Grant, who testified on Monday. Instead, he portrayed the pair as a reluctant spearhead for other victims of unfair scrutiny "who haven't the stomach to be here".
Setting out how he had tried to separate his private life from his professional existence, Mr Coogan, who is also suing the News of the World for alleged phone hacking, said he had never declared himself a "paragon of virtue" and deliberately not sought fame, turning down all invitations to chat shows and film premieres.
Dressed in a sombre suit and tie, he said: "I am an actor, comedian and a writer. I never entered a Faustian pact with the press. I did not become successful in my work through embracing or engaging in celebrity culture. I never signed away myprivacy in return."
Noting that it had been clear for a number of years that "some tabloid editors and proprietors" did not approve of his occasionally colourful personal life, he added: "I do not believe that gives them the right to hack my voicemail, intrude into my privacy or the privacy of people who know me, or print damaging lies."
When asked to provide evidence for his assertions, Mr Coogan highlighted two occasions on which he said he had been targeted by Andy Coulson, former head of communications for David Cameron, while he was working for Rupert Murdoch's News International. Mr Coogan said he was telephoned by the journalist Rav Singh, a "casual friend" of the actor who at the time was working as a reporter for The Sun's Bizarre show-business column, then edited by Mr Coulson. Mr Singh had called him to tip him off that a woman with whom he had had a relationship was about to call him from Mr Coulson's office and entice him into confirming details of their affair while the editor listened. Mr Coogan said he was then able to thwart the trick.
In a second instance, Mr Singh, by now working for the NOTW, called him in 2004 at a time when his marriage was breaking down with an offer to keep certain "lurid" details of an affair out of a story in return for confirming less salacious information. Describing how he had agreed to the offer, Mr Coogan said: "After that, my manager received a phone call from Andy Coulson saying they had recorded the whole phone call and they were going to print it in the newspaper."
In his statement to the inquiry, the actor said this was an example of a "dispassionate sociopathic act" by tabloid journalists operating in an "amoral universe".
The encounters were part of a prolonged period in which the actor said he was often under surveillance, with photographers sitting outside his home and reporters occasionally going through his bins. Mr Coogan said: "I saw them from my bedroom window. They did not look like tramps – not far off."
On other occasions, he claimed a reporter who later identified himself as working for the Daily Mirror had phoned his daughter's great-grandmother pretending to be doing a survey for her local council, and a NOTW journalist had visited his local pub in Brighton on a "fishing trip" offering money for stories about him.
In his statement, the actor said: "There is a horrible cumulative effect of being under constant surveillance."
Mr Coogan claimed he had been particularly targeted by the Daily Mail in two articles published in 2007, which he said attempted to blame him for the alleged drug overdose taken by his friend, the Hollywood actor Owen Wilson. Pointing out that he had not been on the same continent as Mr Wilson for the nine months prior to his apparent suicide attempt, Mr Coogan said he had enjoyed a tempestuous relationship with the Daily Mail.
In one of the hearing's moments of levity, the actor responded to an observation by Lord Leveson that the paper had wrongly described "Thou shalt not commit adultery" as the Fourth Commandment in a subsequent article about him by saying he had not brought up the error because he had broken that commandment. The judge replied: "Let's not go there."
The inquiry heard that Mr Coogan did not consider that the press had conducted a personal vendetta against him but instead operated like the "mafia – nothing personal, just business".
He said he had no confidence in the ability of those wronged by the press to obtain easy redress. He added: "There needs to be a mechanism... for a privacy law so that genuine public interest journalism isn't besmirched by this tawdry muckracking."
'Mail on Sunday' journalists may be called
Mail on Sunday journalists may be asked to appear before the Leveson Inquiry over allegations made by Hugh Grant. It would be a controversial departure from the agreed legal framework, but the journalists could appear before the Christmas recess to be questioned over their sources for a February 2007 article which claimed Grant's relationship with Jemima Khan was "on the rocks". Lord Leveson suggested the inquiry might ask the relevant journalists to give evidence – but while Associated Newspapers' counsel Jonathan Caplan QC agreed, the Mail on Sunday's managing editor's office did not disclose those responsible when contacted by The Independent.
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