LONDON — CNN celebrity interviewer Piers Morgan was an extremely hands-on tabloid editor who must have known that phone hacking was rife at his paper, a former employee claimed Wednesday.
Business journalist James Hipwell said voicemail interceptions were an everyday activity at Britain’s Daily Mirror tabloid, where Hipwell worked in the late 1990s as a columnist providing stock tips.
Hipwell told a British inquiry into media ethics that while he had no direct evidence that Morgan, the Daily Mirror editor at the time, was involved in phone hacking, he said it was impossible to imagine that Morgan had been kept in the dark.
“Nothing happened at the newspaper without him knowing,” Hipwell testified, speaking a day after Morgan was grilled Tuesday in a tense, nationally televised hearing before the inquiry.
Morgan denied having any direct connection to phone hacking – although he refused to answer questions about how he came to hear a voicemail message left by former Beatle Paul McCartney on the phone of his now ex-wife Heather Mills.
Morgan’s description of the message in a 2006 article for the Daily Mail led some to wonder whether he’d gotten it through phone hacking. Mills has said there was no way Morgan could have obtained it honestly, and on Wednesday she emphasized that she had “never ever played Piers Morgan a tape of any kind, never mind a voice message from my ex-husband.”
Mills added that she would be happy to appear before the inquiry to answer questions about the issue.
Before his U.S. television career, Morgan ran two British tabloids – Rupert Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World, between 1994 and 1995, which has been at the center of the U.K. phone hacking scandal, then the rival Daily Mirror, which is not connected to the Murdoch empire, where he stayed for nearly a decade.
Hipwell and Morgan have a long history. Both were investigated as part of an inquiry into market manipulation after it emerged that Morgan made a quick profit of thousands of pounds (dollars) by buying shares that were then promoted in the next day’s paper.
Morgan was cleared of wrongdoing, but Hipwell and another tipster, Anil Bhoyrul, were convicted in 2005. Hipwell expressed remorse over his role in the stock scam but said he always believed that his former boss had been as guilty as he was.
“I can understand why people think that I have an ax to grind against him,” Hipwell told the inquiry.
By Hipwell’s account, phone hacking was a matter of routine – a “standard journalistic tool for gathering information.” He said journalists openly boasted about breaking into phones to intercept voice mails.
Hipwell challenged Morgan’s unsubstantiated assertion Tuesday that a tabloid editor could only monitor about 5 percent of his journalists’ work, saying that he often saw Morgan inspecting his reporters’ computer screens or working late into the night to tweak headlines.
Morgan “stamped his authority on every single page,” Hipwell said. “The newspaper was built around the cult of Piers.”
Morgan, 46, has already dismissed Hipwell’s claims as the “unsubstantiated allegations of a liar and convicted criminal.” Trinity Mirror Group lawyer Desmond Browne also has rejected Hipwell’s allegations.
Testimony to the inquiry is given under oath, however.
More than a dozen News of the World journalists have been arrested in the hacking scandal, senior executives with Murdoch’s News Corp. media empire have lost their jobs, and top U.K. police officers have resigned over their failure to tackle the problem.
Authorities on Wednesday arrested their first serving police officer as part of an investigation into bribes paid to police by journalists seeking scoops.
London police said a 52-year-old woman who has not been identified was arrested on suspicion of corruption and misconduct in a public office. The woman was detained in Essex, in southeastern England, and was being questioned.
Eight people, including a reporter working for The Sun tabloid, have so far been arrested as part of the police corruption inquiry, although no one has yet been charged.
Also Wednesday, the former editor of the News of the World lost a legal bid to make the now-defunct tabloid pay his legal bills.
Andy Coulson left the tabloid after a reporter and a private investigator were jailed for hacking in 2007. He became Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief but resigned earlier this year when the phone hacking scandal erupted again.
A High Court judge ruled that Coulson’s severance agreement did not require the company to pay his costs relating to allegations of criminal behavior.
But in a separate case, another judge ruled that Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers had to continue paying the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the center of the scandal.
High Court justice Andrew Morritt said the News International subsidiary News Group Newspapers was bound by an agreement protecting Mulcaire from costs and damages arising from voicemail litigation in which they were joint defendants.
The company, itself a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp., had tried to end the contract after it emerged publicly that it was still guaranteeing the costs of a convicted criminal. Mulcaire was jailed briefly in 2007, along with News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman, for eavesdropping on the phone messages of royal aides.
Goodman and Mulcaire remain the only two people ever convicted over the practice.