CNN host Piers Morgan has been dragged into the London phone hacking trial which is focused on allegations of illegality at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.
Morgan, who now fronts a nightly show in the U.S., learnt his trade as a showbiz reporter at Murdoch’s daily tabloid the Sun. A court in London heard on Wednesday from a witness for the prosecution that he had discussed phone hacking, long before the scandal became public, with Rebekah Brooks at a private dinner attended by some of the “most powerful people in the media industry.”
The British talkshow host, who has persistently criticized American gun laws since joining CNN, allegedly joked about illegally accessing voicemails and email correspondence during the birthday celebration of Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World and close advisor to David Cameron, the British Prime Minister. Morgan is not alleged by prosecutors to have committed any crime.
The claims emerged in court today during the testimony of Ambi Sitham, now a life coach and writer based in Los Angeles, who was a solicitor at top British media law firm Schillings at the time. In January 2003, she was also in a relationship with Neil Reading, a close friend of Coulson’s.
She claims she was invited with Reading to Coulson’s birthday party at a steak house in South London. Coulson had just been promoted to the editorship of the tabloid, Murdoch’s bestselling English language newspaper. Sitham told the court she was sitting next to Brooks, who had recently been promoted to edit the Sun — Murdoch’s daily tabloid in Britain. She said Piers Morgan was sat in front of her, on a narrow table of 18 to 20 guests
Sitham described Coulson’s birthday dinner as “a very relaxed, intimate gathering.” and told the court that she only drank a glass and a half of wine all evening because she was nervous. “These people had all climbed the ladder together,” she said. “At the time they were both editors of quite big national tabloid newspapers.” Piers Morgan was, at the time, editing the rival tabloid, the Daily Mirror.
“They were both very busy trying to finish off the last details of their front covers, or splashes, for their newspapers,” Sitham told the court. During a lull at the party she alleges Morgan told Brooks: “I know what your splash is because I’ve been listening to your messages.” Brooks replied, according to Sitham: “Been hacking into my phone again have you, Piers?”
Sitham alleges Morgan quipped back: “Well, you’ve been looking at my emails. But I’ve left a false trail, I’ve led you up the garden path.”
Cross examined by Clare Sibson, a lawyer representing Brooks, Ambi Sitham said the ‘banter’ wasn’t entirely light-hearted. “It was pointed… there was a pointedness to it,” she told the jury. “It was entirely serious. I remember being uncomfortable… There was a certain look in their eyes. There was a certain tone.”
Sitham, who was then working on high privacy cases for clients suing newspapers (including a Mirror exposé of supermodel Naomi Campbell’s visit to a rehab clinic) told the jury she offered Brooks her contact details having found her “very lovely and very welcoming and very nice” so that they could talk about future cases and “try and settle [any that might come up] a bit more amicably.”
But as she handed over her phone number Sitham alleged “Piers turned to me and said ‘Careful—she’ll tap your phone’. Sitham then claimed that Brooks “saw my expression” and said: “Don’t worry, let me give you my number instead.” Challenged by Brooks’ lawyer, Sitham insisted: “I was concerned. She saw that.”
During further cross examination, Sitham was asked about a blog she wrote for the Huffington post in 2012, in which she explained why she had come forward to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into ethics which was set up in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. The blog describes how she was persuaded in early 2012 to testify by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke the hacking scandal a year earlier, Hugh Grant, the actor, and Dr Evan Harris, the director of the Hacked Off campaign which represents victims of press intrusion. In court, she described the dinner in question, as being like something from a Richard Curtis movie (the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually all of which starred Grant). “Is any part of this fictionalised?” Sibson asked of Sitham: “Absolutely not,” she replied.
Later the jury were shown emails exchanged between Sitham and Evan Harris on the 3rd of February 2012, and the former lawyer was asked if she was just seeking ‘media impact’: “Is this whole exercise not just about publicising yourself?” she was asked by Brooks’ lawyer. Sibham denied it. “That was never the objective of doing this,” she said. “This whole process has given me an ulcer and lost friendships”
Andrew Edis, QC, the prosecutor then drew attention to the rest of Sitham’s email which explained: “I do dread the wave of vitriol that I am pretty sure will come my way.” But the email claimed she wanted to cast light “into the workings of the media industry and the incestuous nest of vipers that exist within that industry who are so powerful that people are intimidated from coming forwards and speaking the truth.”
Brooks and Coulson are joined by another six defendants in the Old Bailey, who all plead not guilty to all charges. The trial continues.