Spotlight on ‘The Cult of Piers’ at Leveson Inquiry

It’s not often the words “tough questions” and “Piers Morgan” appear in the same sentence, but on Wednesday the CNN talk show host faced a slew of them as he offered testimony during the Leveson inquiry regarding the role he played in the British newspaper phone-hacking scandal.

“My own evidence is I had no reason or knowledge to believe (hacking cell phone voicemails) was going on,” Morgan testified. “I would say the average editor is probably aware of about five per cent of what his journalists are up to at any given time on every newspaper.”

Morgan, a former editor of two of Britain’s largest tabloid papers – News of the World (1994-1995) and The Daily Mail (1995-2004) – repeatedly denied knowledge of the practice of phone hacking at either of those publications, despite seemingly contradictory statements he made about the topic in subsequent media interviews and even in his own book, The Insider. However, when the scandal came to light this past summer, Morgan, who replaced Larry King as CNN’s primetime talk show host with Piers Morgan Tonight, was quick to distance himself from any allegations.

“I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone,” Morgan said at the time.

Opposing those claims is James Hipwell, a former Daily Mail business journalist who worked under Morgan from 1998-2000 who said that, at the paper, “Nothing happened without (Morgan) knowing.”

“He wanted to know about the details of each story, especially if they were celebrity stories, and he wanted to know where they came from, how do we know, what’s the evidence,” Hipwell told the inquiry. “The newspaper was built around the cult of Piers.”

Morgan has called Hipwell’s claims the “unsubstantiated allegations of a liar and convicted criminal” stemming from a 2005 stock market scheme for which both Morgan and Hipwell were charged but only Hipwell was convicted. Still, Hipwell claims phone hacking was a widespread and not-so-secret practice among journalists at the paper and that for an editor who “stamped his authority on every single page,” it would be very difficult to believe he didn’t know.

Meanwhile, Morgan also faced questions about a specific case involving Heather Mills, the former wife of Paul McCartney. Mills asserts that her phone messages were hacked by the Daily Mirror when Morgan helmed the paper, which she has said an employee of the paper, who is not Morgan, confessed. Morgan admits he heard one of Mills’ voicemails from McCartney in which he pleaded with her to return after a fight, though he denied it was the result of phone hacking and refused multiple times to tell the inquiry who played it for him.

“All we know for a fact about Lady Heather Mills McCartney is that in their divorce case Paul McCartney stated as a fact that she had recorded their conversations and given them to the media,” Morgan said in his defence when a phone call to Mills to clear up the situation was threatened.

Morgan also denied any knowledge of journalists bribing police officers for information while under his watch.

“I have no reason to believe so, no. I’ve never been made aware of any evidence for that at all.”

Though the phone-hacking allegations began at the News of the World last summer, Hipwell’s testimony also helped shed light on how one paper’s scandal came to engulf much of the country’s media.

“I’ve always thought it was nonsense to suppose that phone hacking at the News of the World was an isolated incident at that newspaper, given that some journalists at the News of the World ended up on other newspapers,” Hipwell said. “So I don’t know why you make the assumption that if they were conducting phone hacking for the News of the World, they wouldn’t do it on other newspapers, on the Sunday People or the Sunday Mirror or the Daily Mirror.”

 – Mike Crisolago