12.21.11

CNN Host Piers Morgan is Grilled at British Press Ethics Inquiry

CNN host and former tabloid newspaper editor Piers Morgan is grilled and embarrassed by Britain’s press inquiry over phone hacking.

Piers Morgan, a man best known in the US for being an interrogator on CNN, had the tables turned on him yesterday when he was subject to questioning from a lawyer at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Morgan, formerly the top editor at two tabloids, appeared as a witness at the public inquiry into ethics and culture of the British press that was established by Prime Minister David Cameron following the phone hacking scandal earlier this year. The inquiry is also investigating the role of the police.

Dressed in a blue suit and tie, a sober Morgan, who was speaking via satellite from Los Angeles, repeatedly refuted that he either had knowledge of phone hacking or practiced it himself. He insisted that under his editorship “journalists knew they had to operate within the law. That was enshrined in their contracts of employment.”

The focus of questioning was his time on Fleet Street, where he was the top editor the News of the World, the defunct newspaper at the center of the phone hacking scandal, and the left-leaning Daily Mirror, from which he was fired in 2004 after publishing alleged photos of British troops from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment abusing Iraqi prisoners – the photos were soon discovered to be fakes.

“I have no reason or knowledge to believe it was going on,” Morgan asserted to the inquiry, which is made up of six independent assessors and six lawyers, who are acting as counsel. On another occasion he replied to lawyer Robert Jay’s question regarding phone hacking at the Mirror before he left in 2004 by saying: “To the best of my recollection, I do not believe so.”

While strongly denying all knowledge of phone hacking, Morgan admitted to hearing a recording of a message from the phone of Sir Paul McCartney’s former wife, Heather Mills.

“It doesn’t necessarily follow that listening to somebody speaking to somebody else is unethical,” he answered when questioned by Jay.

“But on the tape of a voicemail message – you didn’t think that was unethical?” Jay asked.

“Well, it depends on the circumstances in which you were listening to it,” Morgan replied, later refusing to elaborate on the context in which he heard the tape on the basis that he wanted to protect a source.

“I have no reason or knowledge to believe it was going on,” Morgan asserted to the inquiry.

While the exchange between Jay and Morgan – who is sometimes portrayed in the British media as rather too pleased with himself – was occasionally tense, the inquiry had no new evidence linking the former newspaper editor to any direct knowledge of or involvement in phone hacking or the other so-called “dark arts” of British tabloids. Morgan ascribed what commentator Roy Greenslade of The Guardian has suggested are “typically show-off statements” on the subject of phone hacking to the “Fleet Street rumor mill,” which he characterized as “very noisy and not always particularly accurate.”

Morgan’s grilling at the inquiry is probably not what CNN had in mind when the cable network hired Morgan to replace Larry King as the host of its flagship interview show. Morgan’s ratings have not been strong.

Today, the inquiry is hearing evidence from James Hipwell, a former Mirror reporter convicted in 2005 of buying low-priced stock then boosting it through his financial column in the newspaper. In July this year Hipwell, who was at the Mirror when Morgan was the top editor, alleged that journalists at the newspaper engaged in phone hacking and that it was “inconceivable” that Morgan was in the dark about the practice. The publisher of the Mirror, Trinity Mirror, insists that Hipwell’s claims are “totally unsubstantiated”. At the time, Morgan was found to have purchased UKP20,000 [$31,400] of shares in a company that was tipped, a day later, in the Mirror. Morgan was cleared of wrongdoing in an internal inquiry, but later apologized.

Today Hipwell told the inquiry, of his time at the Daily Mirror, when Morgan was editor: “I witnessed journalists carrying out repeated privacy infringements, using what has now become a well-known technique to hack in to the voicemail systems of celebrities, their friends, publicists, and public relations executives. The openness and frequency of their hacking activities gave me the impression that hacking was considered a bog-standard journalistic tool for gathering information.”

The inquiry, which has heard numerous stories of the brash methods of British tabloid reporters, has also called victims, including the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and celebrities Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and JK Rowling who, in November, alleged that journalists attempted to contact her by placing a note into her 5-year-old daughter’s school bag.

Morgan’s appearance occurred the same day that News International, the publisher of the News of the World, agreed to pay “appropriate sums” to seven British public figures in settlement for legal claims over phone hacking. There are reports in the British media that Rupert Murdoch could be called to the inquiry. Last week, former News International legal head Tom Crone told the inquiry that, during a meeting in June 2008, he had shown James Murdoch, then the Chief Executive of News International and Rupert’s son and apparent heir, an email suggesting that phone hacking at the newspaper extended well beyond a single rogue reporter.

The inquiry is due to publish a report in September 2012 and will make recommendations regarding the regulation of the British press.