We’re all watching to see if Piers Morgan can hack it

By Theresa Mallinson 1 August 2011

These days Piers Morgan is brazenly denying any knowledge of phone-hacking, but he's taken a more cavalier approach to such dodgy practices in the past. So far, nothing's quite sticking to the slippery Mr Morgan – except his current employer, CNN. For the time being at least. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan has, to put it kindly, a chequered history. In 1994, he was appointed editor of News of the World. At 28, he was the youngest editor of a national newspaper in Britain in more than half a century – quite an achievement, if tabloid journalism is the kind of job to which one aspires.

But by 1995, he’d left the Murdoch empire to edit rival The Daily Mirror, and this was when Morgan really got into his stride. Three incidents stand out during his editorship. There was the infamously insensitive headline in 1996, just before England were due to face Germany in the Euro Championship semi-final. “ACHTUNG! SURRENDER For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over.” He had to say sorry for that one. (And the Gerries defeated England in that match, by the way – Ed)

Come 2000, and Morgan was investigated in a share-tipping scandal. The Daily Mirror “City Slickers” columnists, James Hipwell and Anil Bhoyrul recommended buying shares in an electronics company called Viglen. Turned out they’d done just that – the day before the column was published. So had Morgan – to the tune of ?67,000, a move he subsequently described as “an appalling coincidence”. Morgan, however, was cleared in an internal inquiry, as well as a government investigation. (Hipwell, meanwhile, got 59 days in jail, and Bhoyrul 180 hours of community service.)

It took Morgan’s next big misstep for him to lose his job. In 2004 The Daily Mirror published a front-page splash of pictures showing UK troops torturing civilians in Iraq. Trouble is, the pictures were faked, and crudely so, with details revealing that they weren’t even taken in Iraq Morgan had to apologise for that one too, and this time only his resignation was good enough.

Fast-forward to the present – and through many episodes of “America’s Got Talent”, not to mention the British iteration of the show. Morgan is now 46, and the host of “Piers Morgan Tonight” on CNN, a replacement for “Larry King Live”. But his tenure at The Daily Mirror is coming back to haunt him. Because it’s not only the Murdochs who are being implicated in the phone-hacking scandal.

In the UK parliamentary hearing into the matter, Tory MP Louise Mensch referred to a passage in  Morgan’s book “The Insider” (the third volume of his autobiography), where he outlined the “little trick” of a caller being able to access someone else’s voice mail by entering a standard four-digit code. Mensch went on to say: “In that book he boasted that using that ‘little trick’ enabled him to win scoop of the year on a story about Sven Goran Eriksson. So there is a former editor of The Daily Mirror being very open about his personal use of phone hacking”.

Mensch had, in fact, misquoted Morgan. You see, he was referring to his knowledge of the ‘little trick’ in reference to how his own phone had been hacked, not his – or his reporters’ – practices. And last week Mensch issued an apology to Morgan for her misreading of the situation. But the incident was far from the end of his problems. 

Of the many people who have insinuated that Morgan and The Daily Mirror engaged in phone-hacking, it’s James Hipwell (the disgraced “City Slickers” columnist) who’s gone on the record. Hipwell used to sit next to the showbiz desk during his time at the paper. He told the Independent: “They would call a celebrity with one phone and when it was answered they would then hang up. By that stage the other phone would be into their [the celebrity’s] voicemail and they would key in the code, 9999 or 0000. I saw that a lot.” Hipwell has indicated his willingness to testify before the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking, set to start in September.

Morgan, meanwhile, has stated his position clearly: “I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone.” Ah, the old “to my knowledge” defence.

But Morgan sure knows a lot about phone-hacking in the tabloid industry in general. The way he tells it, phone-hacking was rife – just never, ever practiced at his paper.

There was the April 2000 diary entry in “The Insider”: “I got back to the office to learn that Kate Winslet, having indicated she would come to our Pride of Britain awards tomorrow, is now saying she can’t. Someone had got hold of her mobile number – I never like to ask how – so I rang her… ‘Hello,’ she said, sounding a bit taken aback. ‘How did you get my number? I’ve only just changed it. You’ve got to tell me, please, I am so worried now’.”

If Morgan “never liked to ask”, that sounds pretty much like wilful blindness to us.  

In 2006 Morgan wrote a story for The Daily Mail, about Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’ break-up. “Stories soon emerged that the marriage was in trouble – at one stage I was played a tape of a message Paul had left for Heather on her mobile phone. It was heartbreaking. The couple had clearly had a tiff, Heather had fled to India, and Paul was pleading with her to come back. He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate, and even sang ‘We Can Work It Out’ into the answer phone.”

Morgan didn’t ask how the answer phone message was accessed or, if he did, he’s not telling.

Then there was the make-up interview with Naomi Campbell in GQ in 2007, when she turned the tables on Morgan and started interrogating him.

NC: “What do you think of the News Of The World reporter who was recently found guilty of tapping the royals’ phones? Did you ever allow that when you were there?”

PM: “Well, I was there in 1994 to ’95, before mobiles were used very much, and that particular trick wasn’t known about. I can’t get too excited about it, I must say. It was pretty well-known that if you didn’t change your pin code when you were a celebrity who bought a new phone, then reporters could ring your mobile, tap in a standard factory setting number and hear your messages. That is not, to me, as serious as planting a bug in someone’s house, which is what some people seem to think was going on.”

NC: “It’s an invasion of privacy, though.”

PM: “It is, yes. But loads of newspaper journalists were doing it. Clive Goodman, the NOTW reporter, has been made the scapegoat for a very widespread practice.”

It seems strange that if “loads of newspaper journalists were doing it”, not a single one from The Daily Mirror was. But wait, there’s more:

In 2009 Morgan appeared on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” radio show. Interviewer Kirsty Young asked him about his time as a tabloid editor: “And what about this nice middle-class boy who would have to be dealing with, I mean, essentially people who rake through people’s bins for a living? People who tap people’s phones, people who take secret photographs… who do all that very nasty down-in-the-gutter stuff – how did you feel about that?”

Morgan replied: “Well, to be honest, let’s put that in perspective as well. Not a lot of that went on… A lot of it was done by third parties, rather than the staff themselves… That’s not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work. I’m quite happy to be parked in the corner of tabloid beast and to have to sit here defending all these things I used to get up to, and I make no pretence about the stuff we used to do. I simply say the net of people doing it was very wide and a lot encompassed the high and low end of the supposed newspaper market.”

In a statement issued by CNN after the interview resurfaced, Morgan claimed there was “no contradiction between my comments on Kirsty Young’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ show and my unequivocal statements with regard to phone hacking… My answer was not specific to any of the numerous examples she gave, but a general observation about tabloid newspaper reporters and private investigators.”

Plausible deniability has to be, well, plausible and, Morgan’s isn’t standing up very well. “I’m quite happy to be parked in the corner of tabloid beast and to have to sit here defending all these things I used to get up to…” That’s a general observation about other people if we ever heard one.

The Trinity Mirror Group, which owns The Daily Mirror, announced last week that it was conducting a review of editorial practices across all its titles (although if it follows the News International model of internal investigations, we don’t suppose it will produce any startling revelations).

More interesting to follow will be the Leveson inquiry, not to mention the upcoming courtroom battles. Mark Lewis, who represents several people suing News of the World, has confirmed that he is also acting for claimants against The Daily Mail. “There are about three or four cases which will start within the next few weeks,” The Sunday Times quoted him as saying.

In an interview with The Observer in April 2010, Morgan stated: “My family motto is: one day you’re the cock of the walk, the next you’re the feather duster. It could all end. I’m planning for the worst. I’ve got plan Bs; I’ve got plan Cs.” CNN is sticking by Morgan, for now. Perhaps he start dusting off that plan B? DM

Read more:

  • The Case Against Piers Morgan in Gawker.
  • Piers Morgan and phone hacking – what his record really reveals in The Guardian;
  • Phone hacking: Trinity Mirror drawn into the spotlight by Morgan in The Guardian.

Photo: CNN host Piers Morgan arrives at the BAFTA Brits to Watch event in Los Angeles, California July 9, 2011. Prince William and his wife Catherine are on a royal visit to California from July 8 to July 10. REUTERS/Fred Prouser.


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