LONDON (Reuters) - British tabloid journalists competing ferociously to secure front-page news believed themselves untouchable in recent years, losing all sense of right and wrong and making some public figures afraid to leave home, an inquiry has heard.
Appearing at a public hearing into media standards, witnesses including the family of a murder victim, a lawyer and the actor Hugh Grant said the press had completely lost control before a phone hacking scandal blew up this year, drawing attention to media practices.
Grant said that if he ever called police to report a crime, a photographer would always turn up first. Fear of drawing attention to a girlfriend meant he had missed the birth of his child and previous girlfriends had been hounded by photographers, leaving them terrified.
"A free press is of course a cornerstone of democracy," Grant told a packed London court room. "I just think that there has been a section of our press that has become toxic over the last 20 or 30 years.
"It's main tactic being bullying, intimidation and blackmail. And I think it's time that this country found the courage to stand up to this bully now."
The disclosure in July that phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World had stretched from celebrities to murder victims provoked a national outcry that led to the closure of the newspaper.
Within days, his News Corp group withdrew its bid to buy the 61 percent of broadcaster BSkyB it did not already own; its British newspaper arm News International shut the 168-year-old paper and Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry.
The parents of the murder victim Milly Dowler have become key figures in the debate about media practices, appearing with Hollywood stars and other high-profile figures who have suffered from a ruthless hunt for stories to boost sales.
They described at length how they had to come to terms with the disappearance of their daughter, while journalists hid in their garden and photographers caught their most difficult moments.
"It felt like such an intrusion into a really private grief," Sally Dowler said.
To a silent court room, she told how she had suddenly become excited during the hunt for her daughter when she realized that phone messages left on Milly's phone were being deleted - thinking, falsely, she was still alive.
Bob Dowler said the family had felt hounded and afraid to leave their home.
Britain's tabloid press has for years been known as highly aggressive, reporting the most intimate details between members of the royal family, politicians and celebrities, prompting Former Prime Minister Tony Blair to once describe it as a "feral beast."
In its defense, the press says it acts to expose hypocrisy, where famous figures make a living off a clean role-model image -- a stance immediately dismissed by Grant and lawyer Graham Shear, who has acted for famous footballers and entertainers.
Shear described the revelations of press wrongdoing as the "ultimate in hypocrisy" while Grant disputed that there was ever any public interest that could justify an investigation into his private life.
"I've never had a good name and it's made absolutely no difference at all," he said. "I'm the man who was arrested with a prostitute and the film still made tons of money," he added, referring to a notorious 1995 arrest.
Another witness, columnist Joan Smith, said she had gone into shock when she saw the lengthy notes made about her. She described the tabloid press as remorseless.
Last Wednesday, the lawyer representing 51 clients who say they have suffered at the hands of the press delivered a withering critique of newspapers. Three of those he represents say they believed the treatment had contributed to family members committing suicide or attempting to kill themselves.
Most of the focus of the inquiry so far has fallen on Murdoch's News International however, lawyer David Sherborne has made it clear that all papers' activities deserve to be scrutinized and reformed.
Grant said he believed the Mail on Sunday had hacked into his phone messages in previous years but had no concrete proof. A spokesman for the Daily Mail & General Trust's Mail on Sunday said it "utterly refuted" Grant's allegation.
The inquiry, headed by senior judge Brian Leveson and due to last a year, will make recommendations that could have a lasting impact on the industry, lead to tighter media rules or at least an overhaul of the current system of self-regulation.
Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan and Michael Holden; editing by Philippa Fletcher