CNN host Piers Morgan is under pressure to admit his apparent involvement in phone hacking after a claim by Heather Mills that a journalist from Britain’s Mirror group had confessed to intercepting her phone messages while Morgan was editor of the paper.
Morgan last night denied ordering anybody to hack telephone voice messages at the Mirror group, the first newspaper company outside Rupert Murdoch’s News International to face specific allegations of phone hacking.
Morgan attacked Ms Mills’s credibility, but his major problem is that he acknowledged in 2006 that he listened to a recording of a message former Beatle Paul McCartney left for his former wife, who was then his girlfriend.
Writing in the Daily Mail before the practice of hacking into people’s phone messages had blown up into a scandal that has shaken the British media, politics and police, Morgan described listening to an intercepted message on Ms Mills’s phone.
“I was played a tape of a message Paul had left for Heather on her mobile phone,” he wrote.
“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 he even sang We Can Work It Out into the answerphone.”
Morgan has refused to explain that 2006 confession in his recent carefully worded denials of involvement in phone hacking.
He was targeted in the current scandal two weeks ago after former Mirror business reporter James Hipwell told The Australian phone hacking was widespread at the newspaper under Morgan’s editorship. When the British media picked up on Hipwell’s comments, the share price of the Trinity Mirror group plunged by 9.8 per cent in a day, prompting the company to announce an inquiry into its editorial standards.
Hipwell, who was jailed for 59 days over a share-tipping scandal, is still the only journalist to go on the record saying he witnessed phone hacking at a non-News International newspaper.
Morgan was a show business reporter on The Sun and was appointed editor of the News of the World at 28 before leaving News International in 1995 to become editor of the Daily Mirror, a job he lost after nine years when he published hoax photos relating to the Iraq war.
Ms Mills told the BBC’s Newsnight program that in 2001 she was contacted by a senior journalist — not Morgan — from the Trinity Mirror group, which publishes 240 titles including the Sunday Mirror, Daily Record and The People .
The journalist was seeking a story about the fact Ms Mills had gone to India after an argument with McCartney, and “started quoting verbatim the messages from my machine”, she said.
Ms Mills claimed she challenged the journalist, saying: “You’ve obviously hacked my phone, and if you do anything with this story I’ll go to the police.”
He backed down, saying: “OK, OK, yeah, we did hear it on your voice messages, I won’t run it.”
Morgan has said he never ordered anybody to hack phones or published a story based on an intercepted message.
He wrote in his memoir The Insider that after a request from McCartney, he pulled a story about Mills and the singer arguing in 2001 over her decision to go to India to help earthquake victims.
Nancy Dell’Olio, an Italian lawyer who is the former partner of former England football coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, also told the BBC she believed the Mirror had obtained stories by hacking the couple’s voicemails.
Morgan attacked Ms Mills yesterday, pointing out that a judge in her divorce case had called her an “inconsistent and inaccurate, less than candid” witness.
“Heather Mills has made unsubstantiated claims about a conversation she may or may not have had with a senior executive from a Trinity Mirror newspaper in 2001,” Morgan said. “The BBC has confirmed to me this executive was not employed by the Daily Mirror. I have no knowledge of any conversation any executive from other newspapers at Trinity Mirror may or may not have had with Heather Mills.
“What I can say and have knowledge of is that Sir Paul McCartney asserted that Heather Mills illegally intercepted his telephones, and leaked confidential material to the media.
“And to reiterate, I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from hacking a phone.”
Trinity Mirror repeated its previous statement that “all our journalists work within the criminal law and the . . . code of conduct”.