What lies behind the Daily Mail’s assault on Hugh Grant? Could it be conventional piety? Hardly: have you looked at Mail Online lately? It is an artful mix of soft porn and celebrity gossip of the kind which, just a few years ago, the Mail itself would have dismissed as morally corrosive. 

Is the paper living in a dream world of Downton Abbey values? Maybe, but look at this.  Delightfully illustrated and just a week old, it shows a Daily Mail that, far from being judgemental, is aware, cheeky and relaxed, even in the face of evidence of mass adultery.

Or could it be that Amanda Platell has some personal objection to Hugh Grant? She would not need one, for her article carries all the hallmarks of Glenda Slagg morality. Imagine that her instructions had been to whip up hatred against the mother in this case rather than the father. She could have done so with exactly the same passion and apparent conviction, simply substituting “arentyasickofher” for “arentyasickofhim”.

The Mail’s great broadside against Grant has nothing to do with morality and nothing to do with the perils of fatherhood outside wedlock. It is simply an act of intimidation.

The actor has been a prominent critic of privacy intrusion by the press and the Mail has chosen to make an example of him. It is saying to any prominent person who challenges the press: if you speak out, this is what we will do to you.

One of the most vivid insights into the culture of the old News of the World was a conversation from 2002 that happily was recorded for posterity. “That is what we do,” a news editor told a reporter, “we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”

The Mail plays the same game, and its technique in this case is wilful distortion. Take three facts and from those facts derive a dozen assumptions, all of which fit your agenda. From those assumptions weave a narrative as demeaning as can be contrived, and then pile the outrage on top. Never mind that the same three facts could provide the foundation of five entirely different narratives, leading to entirely different perspectives on those involved.

Platell doesn’t know the truth about Hugh Grant’s relationships and the Mail doesn’t either, but that does not matter: they have constructed a story that serves their purpose.

Just at this moment, with the Leveson inquiry set to start taking evidence and the joint parliamentary committee on privacy in full flow, the Mail is desperate to blunt the message that the unregulated mas-circulation press — the press that gave us hacking, the McCann case, the Christopher Jefferies case and so many others —  is a threat to the health of our society.

Hugh Grant is a Leveson witness, so it makes him a target. And at the same time the treatment doled out to him serves notice, not only on anyone else with opinions the Mail does not like but also on everyone involved in both of those inquiries, that they can be dealt with the same way.

In their high-minded moments, papers like the Mail present themselves as champions of free expression, yet this is how they deal with those who disagree with them. And they have the nerve to call other people hypocrites.

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.