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Piers Morgan looks into the Mirror: did he know about hacking?

Former UK newspaper editor Piers Morgan must be wishing he'd kept his mouth shut about phone hacking over the years, instead of shooting it off at every possible opportunity. The garrulous and charming Mr M, who now fronts his own nightly TV chat show in Los Angeles, may not actually lose his valuable gig on CNN over his indiscretions but it sure isn't helping.

The latest pressure on Morgan comes from new allegations that journalists at London’s Daily Mirror -- which he edited from 1996 to 2004 -- were busily hacking voicemails of celebrities and politicians in the early 2000s while he was in charge, and may even have been doing it before the News of the World got in on the act.

One of the Mirror's alleged targets, ex-England soccer manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, was a favourite of the tabloids because of his regular affairs. And it was the Mirror who produced the first sexy scoop. It is suggested the News of the World then tooled up to do the same, by hiring private eye Glenn Mulcaire to hack phones on its behalf.

Eriksson is one of four people now suing the Trinity Mirror group for hacking into his voicemails, thus skittling the share price, which has fallen around 20% since the news broke. His lawyer, Mark Lewis, who led the charge against the NotW in 2008 on behalf of another ex-England football manager, Gordon Taylor, and scored him a 425,0000 pound pay-off, is also acting for David Beckham’s former nanny, Abbie Gibson, a British soapie star called Shobna Gulati and soccer player Gary Flitcroft.

Worse than this for Morgan is that a group of Trinity Mirror shareholders has conducted its own investigation into hacking and named six journalists from the Mirror and People who (it claims) regularly used hacking to get their stories. When told that they had been identified, the journalists allegedly indicated their defence would be that hacking was common practice on the papers.

This chimes in with Morgan's confession to the UK Press Gazette in 2007 that he felt a lot of sympathy for the NotW's jailed royal correspondent Clive Goodman, because he was just a "fall-guy for an investigative practice that everyone knows was going on at almost every paper in Fleet Street for years". Ahem, including his own, perhaps.

By that time, Morgan had published his book, The Insider: the Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, and given readers a blow-by-blow account of how a mobile phone's voicemails could be hacked. He had also bragged about his knowledge to BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, as they sat at lunch with Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Swedish lover, the high-profile TV host Ulrika Jonsson, in 2002. As Paxman recounted to the Leveson Inquiry earlier this year:

"Morgan said, teasing Ulrika, that he knew what had happened in conversations between her and Sven-Goran Eriksson, and he went into this mock Swedish accent. Now I don't know whether he was repeating a conversation that he had heard, or he was imagining this conversation ... It was a rather bad parody. I was struck by it because I am wet behind the ears; I didn't know this sort of thing went on. He turned to me and said: 'Have you got a mobile phone?' I said yes. He said: 'Have you got a security setting on the message bit of it?' ... I didn't know what he was talking about. He then explained that the way to get access to people's messages was to go to the factory default setting and press 0000 and 1234 and if you didn't put your own code in, his words were, 'you are a fool'."

Not content with telling Paxman in 2002, Morgan gave further clues as to his knowledge of the practice in 2006 in an article in Britain's Daily Mail in which he admitted listening to one of Heather Mills' voicemails when her marriage to Beatle Paul McCartney was in trouble in 2001. Morgan wrote:

"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 answerphone."

Five years later, he was at it again, answering top model Naomi Campbell’s question in GQ about whether the NotW had hacked phones when Morgan edited the paper, and telling her:

"Well, I was there in 1994-5, 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 ... loads of newspaper journalists were doing it."

Last December, Morgan was asked by the Leveson inquiry whether he had ever illegally intercepted voicemails or known about it happening on his papers. He said no. He was also asked by Lord Leveson: "Have you listened to recordings of what you knew to be illegally obtained voicemail messages?" To which he replied: "I don't believe so, no."

Morgan then agreed he had listened to a tape of the Mills message, as claimed. Asked whether it was a voicemail, he replied: "I believe it was, yes."

Leveson: "The only person who would lawfully be able to listen to the message is the lady in question or somebody authorised on her behalf to listen to it. Isn't that right?" Morgan: "Possibly ... Sorry, what do you expect me to say?"

Subsequently, Mills was asked by Leveson to confirm (which she did) that she had not authorised Morgan to listen to it. On that basis one can expect his lordship to have something to say about Mr M when he reports next month. Our guess is it's unlikely to be favourable.

Stories of hacking at the Mirror under Morgan's command have been around for years, even without him telling them. Way back in August 2006, when the NotW’s Goodman and Muclaire were arrested, a former Mirrorbusiness journalist told The Guardian that hacking was widespread during his time on the paper from 1998 to 2000. James Hipwell claimed the Mirror had got its Eriksson scoop by intercepting a message left on her voicemail. The Spice Girls' phones were also hacked, he said.

Five years later, when the scandal blew up again, Hipwell told The Independent it had been endemic at the Mirror, and seen as a "bit of a wheeze". Journalists on the showbiz desk would call celebrity mobiles in tandem, so one would get through while the other was shunted to voicemail, he said. Morgan would have known about this, Hipwell believed. "Piers was extremely hands-on as an editor," he claimed. "He was on the [newsroom] floor every day, walking up and down behind journalists, looking over their shoulders. I can't say 100% that he knew about it. But it was inconceivable he didn't."

Hipwell expanded on this to Leveson in December 2011, telling the inquiry:

"I sat next to the Mirror's showbusiness journalists on the 22nd floor of Canary Wharf Tower and so was able to see at close hand how they operated. 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 the impression that hacking was considered a bog-standard journalistic tool for gathering information. For example, I would on occasion hear two or more members of the show business team discussing what they had heard on voicemails openly across their desks. One of the reporters showed me the technique, giving me a demonstration of how to hack in to voicemails ...

"The practice seemed to be common on other newspapers as well -- journalists at the Mirrorappeared to know their counterparts from The Sun were also listening to voicemail messages, because on one occasion, I heard members of the Mirror team joking about having deleted a message from a celebrity's voicemail in order to ensure to ensure that no journalists from the Sunwould get the same scoop by hacking in and hearing it themselves."

Whether this will all get back to Morgan remains to be seen. The Independent carried a prominent picture of Morgan at the top of Sunday's story about the shareholder dossier, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was one of the six reporters accused of hacking or that they have dobbed him in. But his employers at CNN must be feeling a little nervous. And Morgan himself has raised the stakes by denying all allegations to Leveson and on his show, telling viewers:

"For the record, in my time at the Mirror and the News of the World, I have never hacked a phone, told anybody to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone."

This may well be true, but it will be bad news for him if court cases or prosecutions were to now show it to be false.

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