Piers Morgan on the Hot Seat

06.13.12

Previously Unpublished Documents Show Piers Morgan Under Fire

Investigators had his emails and phone transcripts—a fact that the CNN host and former tabloid editor said was “one of the most unnerving things in my life.”

Piers Morgan, the primetime CNN host and former British tabloid editor, has a reputation as a brash and freewheeling newsman who doesn’t back down from authority, trades in celebrity gossip and is unafraid to offend.

British government documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, however, provide a rare look at Morgan in a more humble light: as someone who is deeply concerned about his reputation and uncomfortable on the hot seat, and who takes very seriously the subject of privacy.

The previously unpublished documents give details of what went on between Morgan and British investigators during a four-year investigation into a stock-tipping scandal centered on the tabloid he edited, The Daily Mirror. The documents detail Morgan imploring investigators to ensure that there are no leaks from the investigation to the press, fearing it would further fuel a news storm begun in early 2000 when the Daily Telegraph reported he had purchased shares in Viglen, a technology company, a day before a Mirror column labeled it a “screaming buy.” Viglen’s stock doubled in price. Morgan tells investigators he didn’t know the next day’s column would be about Viglen until he read it in the paper. “I could see immediately the PR problem of me buying shares the day before they doubled,” Morgan recounts. “I woke up. I saw all the papers … They said that I was a scoundrel, blah, blah, blah. I realized then that it was going to be quite a long day.” 

“I want people to understand how difficult it’s been and, in my view, very unfairly in my case, because I got completely buried in an avalanche of horrific publicity at the time,” Morgan says in the documents. “Until it’s resolved I have to live with this cloud.” In one interview with investigators, Morgan says that after the government announced an investigation, “you can safely assume that my bowels were beginning to twitch slightly about what was going to happen.”

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Piers Morgan denies knowledge of phone hacking before the Leveson Inquiry in December 2011.

Through a spokeswoman, Morgan declined to comment for this story. 

Morgan, who ultimately wasn’t charged with a crime, underwent hours of interviews with the investigators from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) who were armed with copies of his emails and recordings of his calls. They point to a 2000 conversation between Morgan and his broker, shortly after the scandal erupted, in which Morgan asks the broker whether he recalls him mentioning the column before buying the Viglen stock. Investigators say this makes it sound as if Morgan had prior knowledge of the column. Morgan denies this, saying they are misinterpreting him. “You know, I was having all my emails read by a series of people, all my phone calls listened to by a lot of people, and it was extremely unnerving,” he explains, recounting the furor over the Viglen scandal. “I’m afraid anybody caught in this position, when you’re being in meltdown from the papers, television, everything else, feeling extremely beleaguered, you are going to be looking at this in a different light to how you were before this blew up.” 

“You can’t pin me down like you would some people.”

In the interview, he describes the feeling of hearing these calls read to him by investigators: “I have to tell you, I found it one of the most unnerving things in my life, having to listen to transcripts of private conversations. It’s not something I’ve ever had to do before. I hope I never have to again.”

This is a stark contrast to accounts that have emerged in recent years that portray Morgan as an editor who appeared to take a casual approach to the private conversations of those who found themselves in his sights during his time atop the British tabloid world. The latest came from Jeremy Paxman, a BBC interviewer, on May 23. Making his appearance before the Leveson Inquiry into the British press that began in the wake of last year’s News International phone-hacking scandal, Paxman recounted a 2002 lunch he attended with Morgan, Swedish-British TV personality Ulrika Jonsson, and others. During the lunch, Paxman said, Morgan came “close to bullying” Jonsson by parodying, in a “mock Swedish accent,” private conversations she’d had with her lover. 

At the same lunch, Paxman added in his testimony, Morgan told him how to access a person’s voice messages using the factory settings on mobile phones. If you don’t change the default PIN number, Paxman remembered Morgan saying, “you’re a fool.” 

The lunch came on the heels of a blockbuster Mirror story about an affair between Jonsson and Sven-Göran Eriksson, the manager of England’s football team. It was one of the signature scoops of Morgan’s time editing the newspaper. Critics have long speculated that phone hacking was the source of the story, and there have been previous accounts of the lunch alleging that Morgan made references to hacking. Morgan has denied such accounts in the past, and firmly rejected the idea that hacked voicemails played a role in the Jonsson story—or indeed for any story the Mirror ever published while he was editor between 1995 and 2004. “I’ve never hacked a phone, never told anyone else to hack a phone, or published any stories based on the hacking of a phone,” he said on his CNN show last July. The Mirror, Morgan has also pointed out, has yet to be targeted with a hacking-related legal claim. (Morgan’s successor at the Mirror, Richard Wallace, who was head of news at the time of the Jonsson scoop, recently said  “it’s possible” hacked voice mails were the source of the story.) Morgan took to Twitter in response to Paxman’s May allegations, calling him “an ungrateful little wretch,” and vowing that he would never again invite him to lunch.

Morgan seemed to play down the gravity of hacking in a 2007 interview with GQ magazine, saying the practice was “pretty well-known” and not as serious as some of the other allegations flying around Fleet Street, such as planting bugs in people’s homes. “I can’t get too excited about it, I must say,” Morgan told GQ. In his 2005 book, The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, a collection of his personal diaries, Morgan wrote in a 2001 entry, “apparently if you don’t change the standard security code that every phone comes with, then anyone can call your number and, if you don’t answer, tap in the standard four digit code to hear all your messages … I’ll change mine just in case, but it makes me wonder how many public figures and celebrities are aware of this little trick.”

Morgan has spoken openly about listening in on private conversations. In a 2006 Daily Mail column, he recalled being played a tape of a private voice message left by Paul McCartney for then-wife Heather Mills. “It was heartbreaking. The couple had clearly had a tiff,” Morgan wrote. “Paul was pleading with her to come back. He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate, and even sang ‘We Can Work It Out’ on the answerphone.” Testifying at the Leveson Inquiry in February, Mills said she had “never ever” allowed Morgan or anyone else to listen to her messages.

In the United States, Morgan is best known as the man who took Larry King’s place on CNN’s flagship evening time slot, now called Piers Morgan Tonight, and who also won Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. Before he moved across the Atlantic, Morgan made his mark as one of the most formidable personalities on Britain’s media scene. In 1994, Rupert Murdoch made the 28-year-old Morgan the youngest top editor ever at the News of the World, circulation 4.5 million. Less than two years later, Morgan jumped ship to the ailing Daily Mirror, which had dominated the tabloid pack before Murdoch took over the Sun in 1969. There, he would spend the next decade battling toe-to-toe with his old employer.

Morgan lent the Mirror a headline-grabbing flair (“Achtung! Surrender!” read one notorious headline before a 1996 England-Germany soccer game), and he worked to expand the paper’s appeal beyond its traditional left-leaning base. He developed quickly into a media star, which culminated in the much-hyped 2005 publication of The Insider. Morgan was called “a Fleet Street force of nature, guest at Downing Street, lunch companion of Princess Diana and confidant of everyone who was anyone” by The Observer in anticipation of the book’s release. When Morgan was fired, in 2004, after the Mirror unwittingly published fake photographs purporting to depict British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners—the culmination of a vehement antiwar campaign—he was called “the greatest of rivals” by Rebekah Brooks, then the editor of the Sun.

Morgan’s time at the Mirror was also colored by its share of controversy. Critics point out that the paper had one of the highest tabs of any newspaper on the books of Steve Whittamore, the private investigator convicted of trading in information obtained by illegal means—known as “blagging”. At the Leveson Inquiry, Morgan said he wasn’t aware of his reporters making illegal requests of private investigators: “I would say the average editor is probably aware of about 5 percent of what his journalists are up to at any given time on every newspaper.”

This picture of Morgan toeing the line, but never going over it, also emerges in the unpublished documents, as Morgan spars with investigators over his role in the stock-tipping scandal. The column at the center of the scandal was called City Slickers. Co-written by James Hipwell and Anil Bhoyrul, the column covered London’s financial news and gossip and made aggressive calls to buy or sell. It was highly regarded among City insiders—London’s version of Wall Street—and the writers’ picks were often on the mark. Their Top Ten Tips for 1999, for example, produced a return of around 140 percent by the end of the year. Hipwell and Bhoyrul immersed themselves in City culture, even making trips to a lap-dancing club popular with bankers to pick up information and, as Morgan recounts in the documents, “get completely pissed and [watch] girls take their clothes off.” In the documents, Morgan tells investigators, “I have been once and felt incredibly uncomfortable … We took a few of the secretaries with us.” 

Their Jan. 18, 2000, column about Viglen contained news about the company’s move into Internet services and a strong recommendation to buy. That day, the stock doubled. Hipwell and Bhoyrul were fired after it was discovered that they bought shares in Viglen on Jan. 17 and then sold them the next day at a profit. They were later convicted of market manipulation. Hipwell, who recently launched a business magazine in Beirut, spent two months in jail. In an interview, Hipwell told The Daily Beast that the scandal shows a key trait of Morgan’s high-flying time in the U.K. media scene: “He liked to sail close to the wind.”

In the Mirror’s own investigation of the Viglen incident, conducted by the City law firm Lovells, and reviewed by The Daily Beast, Morgan noted that “recently, almost everything written about in the column tends to move share prices.” Hipwell told the Lovells team that Morgan knew about his column in advance and had announced that he planned to invest in Viglen. “On the basis that Mr. Morgan was purchasing shares, he thought that was a green light for him,” the report says about Hipwell. It also notes that at least four additional Mirror employees had purchased Viglen shares on Jan. 17. But the Lovells attorneys ultimately accepted Morgan’s version of events and his denial of wrongdoing. “It would be wrong for us not to disclose the fact that we are troubled by the sheer number of Mirror employees who each decided, in a matter of hours of each other, to invest,” the report reads. “We have not, however, found any evidence that Mr. Morgan in some way instigated, or was at the center of, this pattern of transactions.”

During the DTI investigation, Morgan tells investigators that while it may have been unwise for him to invest in Viglen, given his paper had been covering the company, his reasons had nothing to do with the column in question. He says there had been a general buzz about the company, and his uncle, a successful investor, had recommended the stock. In addition, Viglen’s move into Internet services was public knowledge, he says, and had already been hinted at by the company in a classified ad for Internet entrepreneurs. Morgan says he decided to make the purchase—which involved emptying an investment account as well as buying additional shares in his wife’s name—on a whim. “To be perfectly honest, I think I had a couple of drinks over lunch. I came back and I thought, ‘I will have a little flutter with my money in the bank account,’ because it was sitting there doing nothing,” he said. “I know it is incredulous now, but I cannot tell you how little thought I gave this at the time.” Morgan later donated his proceeds from the sale to charity.

Elsewhere in the documents, investigators point to recorded conversations between Morgan and his broker on Jan. 17. In the phone calls, Morgan says, “I want to just pile into something … Viglen”; “There is something big coming on the Internet”; and, “It’s imminent, very imminent, so I want to get into these. It’s a rather convoluted route I’ve heard about it, but it’s kosher.”

The investigators understood “imminent” to refer to the upcoming Slickers column and the news it contained. But Morgan says he was referring to rumors he’d already heard about Viglen’s move into the Internet business. Explaining his comment about a “convoluted” route, Morgan says he meant the Viglen advertisements, which hadn’t really been picked up by the financial press yet. He says it was unusual for a company to air its plans that way “rather than through a straight-forward statement to the Stock Exchange.”

“I know some of the language I used. You have probably spoken to me long enough to know that that is the way I talk and that that is the way I talk generally, so ‘imminent’ to me means … Well, you can’t pin me down like you would some people,” Morgan tells the investigators, according to the documents. “ ‘Imminent’ to me is a bit like ‘long-term’. I would not hold too much weight to the final definition of the word. I really would not. It is like ‘convoluted.’ We can argue the semantics of it. I use odd words at various times and I do not really mean, probably, what you think it reads in the cold light of print.”