Scandal

07.26.11

Morgan Admits Dodgy Practices

The CNN host and former Fleet Street editor now claims he never had anything to do with the British tabloid tactics now under scrutiny, but a 2009 audiotape raises questions, Lloyd Grove reports.

Embattled CNN host Piers Morgan—whose years as editor of News of the World and the Daily Mirror are coming under increasing scrutiny amid Britain’s phone-hacking and police-bribery scandal—has spent much of the past week denying any involvement in questionable journalistic tactics and lashing out at his critics.

But in a nearly forgotten interview on a BBC radio program two years ago, Morgan admitted to knowing of some of the news- and gossip-gathering practices that are now under investigation by the U.K. government as well as by a Justice Department probe in the United States. He did not specifically admit to the interception or “hacking” of voicemail messages, one of the practices under official investigation since the revelation that News of the World hacked the cellphone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002.

But two years before the exposure of Fleet Street’s methods rocked the British body politic, Morgan didn’t disagree that that phone-“tapping” and other “down-in-the-gutter” tactics might have been employed in the  attainment of sensational scoops.

In the June 7, 2009, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 of “Desert Island Discs”—in which guests select musical works, books, and luxury items for an imaginary marooning on a remote island—interviewer Kirsty Young pressed the former Fleet Street editor about tabloid tactics that were being widely condemned at the time in Parliament and elsewhere.

“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?” Young asked Morgan. “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’s response: “Well, to be honest, let’s put that into perspective as well. Not a lot of that went on…A lot of it was done by third parties, rather than the staff themselves.” But, in an admission Morgan more recently has steered clear of, he added: “That’s not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work.”

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Morgan, who since January has been hosting CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight in the 9 p.m. time slot formerly occupied by Larry King Live, was making an apparent reference to Fleet Street’s frequent use of private investigators to obtain personal information on celebrities, government officials, and other subjects of sensational stories. A recent official government report on privacy violations by the British press, “What Price Privacy Now?” listed, by newspaper, the number of transactions between journalists and private investigators from an earlier probe in 2003, when Morgan was in charge of the Daily Mirror. That newspaper ranked third, ahead of the fifth-ranked News of the World, with 681 transactions involving 45 staffers.

In the past week, he has been heatedly denying that he published stories obtained through phone hacking and other questionable methods.

“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,” Morgan added in the radio interview, “and I make no pretense about the stuff we used to do. I simply say the net of people doing it was very wide and certainly encompassed the high and the low end of the supposed newspaper market.”

Morgan argued to The Daily Beast on Tuesday night that there is nothing inconsistent in his two-year-old remarks on BBC Radio and the comments he’s been making on CNN in the past week and to The New York Times over the weekend.

“There is no contradiction between my comments on Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs show and my unequivocal statements with regard to phone-hacking,” Morgan said in a statement. “Millions of people heard these comments when I first made them in 2009 on one of the BBC’s longest-running radio shows, and none deduced that I was admitting to, or condoning illegal reporting activity. Kirsty asked me a fairly lengthy question about how I felt dealing with people operating at the sharp end of investigative journalism. My answer was not specific to any of the numerous examples she gave, but a general observation about tabloid newspaper reporters and private investigators. As I have said before, 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.”

CNN didn’t offer its own statement regarding Morgan’s admission on BBC radio.

In an admission Morgan more recently has steered clear of, he added: “That’s not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work.”

In the interview—which was supplied by British blogger Guido Fawkes to The Daily Beast—Morgan described his attitude toward journalism in 1994, when Rupert Murdoch appointed him the youngest editor ever of News of the World, Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday tabloid that Murdoch shut down July 10 amid the scandal, after 168 years in print.

“To be honest with you,” Morgan told Young, “when I first started I was 28. I was carefree. I didn’t really give things much thought.

“I think that brought with it a bravado, courage, and daring that you wouldn’t get if you were 40. But it also brought a sense of slight abandonment about the reality of what you were doing to people. And I think that as I got a bit older and went through my own trials and tribulations, my view of the pleasure to be derived from that kind of thing began to diminish.”

Morgan’s mea culpa two years ago was in stark contrast in his stout declaration of probity on his CNN program on July 18, the night before his former boss, Rupert Murdoch, was grilled by a select committee in the House of Commons. “For the record, I do not believe that any story that we published in either title”— News of the World, which he edited from 1994 to 1995, or the Daily Mirror, which he edited from 1995 to 2004—“was ever gained in an unlawful manner.”

And he waged a fierce battle on Twitter this past weekend with Conservative Member of Parliament Louise Mensch, who claimed at the July 19 hearing—inaccurately, as it turned out—that Morgan had admitted in his memoir, The Insider, that phone-hacking was used to obtain a scoop at the Daily Mirror.

“If you keep tweeting about me in this demented fashion,” Morgan warned the MP, “then I may have you arrested for stalking.”

Mensch has declined to repeat her claims outside Parliament, where statements are protected by a privilege and not subject to libel actions.

“Because if you don’t repeat them,” Morgan tweeted at her, “then everyone will know you’re a gutless lying coward. Won’t they?”

A little later Morgan, marking a million Twitter followers, added: “How best to celebrate passing the million? I’m going to do everyone a favour. You are hereby UN-followed @LouiseMensch—see ya."

In a subsequent tweet, he announced to Mensch: “In fact, I’m going further—you are now officially BLOCKED.” He added the hashtag: “#NoTimeForLyingHalfWits.”