FactCheck: Did Piers Morgan boast about phone hacking?
“Piers Morgan – now a celebrity anchor on CNN – said openly in his book, which, clearly, was published before this controversy broke, that he had hacked phones. He said that he won scoop of the year for a story about Ulrika Jonsson and Sven-Goran Eriksson. He actually gave a tutorial in how one accesses voicemail by punching in a set default code. Clearly, from the account that he gives, he did it routinely as editor of the Daily Mirror.”
Louise Mensch MP, Culture Select Committee hearing on phone hacking, 19 July 2011
A smiling Louise Mensch leant into CNN‘s camera last night to tell Piers Morgan she was “perfectly content with everything (she) said in the Select Committee, without the need for review”.
It was the taunting end to an extraordinary, heated exchange, which saw Morgan battling potentially career-crucifying comments.
Piers Morgan said: “As she may now be aware, she came out with an absolute blatant lie in the proceedings…what she did today was a deliberate and outrageous attempt to smear my name, CNN’s name, The Daily Mirror’s name and I think her now to have the breathtaking gall to just sit here calmly…”
During the hearing, Mensch said Morgan was “very open about his personal use of phone hacking” in his book. She claimed he boasted about using the little trick to win Scoop of the Year in 2003 and that it was this casual attitude that “was part of the general culture of corruption in the British tabloid press”.
It’s not the first time that MPs have thrown the net wider than the News of the World in this scandal, but do the other red tops deserve this flak? And is Mensch right about Morgan, or is it a smear?
FactCheck has dug out a copy of The Insider – which was first published in 2004. According to Morgan’s entry on 18 April 2002, the Scoop of the Year – the affair between England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and Ulrika Jonsson – was brought to him by his “new news supremo” Richard Wallace (current editor of The Mirror).
Morgan says he put a call in to Jonsson’s agent Melanie Cantor, who coughed up after he “put it to her straight”, but other than that he offers no details on how Wallace got the story.
Yet, continuing to take his book at face value, Morgan had known about the practice of phone hacking for more than a year. He does mention phone hacking, albeit just once, in his book – on January 26, 2001 (pictured below).
He explained he was mystified as to how a story hit the press about him being investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry over insider trading.
He wrote: “But someone suggested today that people might be listening to my mobile phone messages. Apparently, if you don’t change the security code that every phone comes with then anyone can call your number and, if you don’t answer, tap in the four digit code to hear all your messages. I’ll change mine just in case but it makes me wonder how many public figures and celebrities are aware of this little trick.”
So yes, Mensch is right that he gives his readers a tutorial in phone hacking, but this is quite blatantly not an open admission from Morgan that he hacked phones, routinely or at all.
It does however prove he was aware of it. And if he knew, how many others did?
This is what Mensch wanted to know, when she put it to James Murdoch that everyone was at it.
Mensch based her argument on the findings of Operation Motorman, the original investigation into private eye Steve Whittamore, who was convicted of passing information obtained from the police national database to newspapers.
In 2006, an overview of the Operation – What Price Privacy Now? – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), listed the publications whose journalists were “customers” of Whittamore.
Daily Mail journalists topped the list, with 58 journalists identified as dealing with Whittamore on 952 different occasions. Tot up all the titles however, and Trinity Mirror trumps the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) – with 1,692 dealings with Whittamore. Of the 305 journalists involved in the case, 117 worked for Trinity Mirror titles and 98 for the DMGT.
The Press Complaints Commission, which has been described by Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders as a “fishnet condom” for complaints, told FactCheck that to date it has received just one official complaint over phone hacking, and that was dropped.
Mr Sanders told the Commons earlier this month: “We need to extend this beyond News International. Operation Motorman highlighted that it was the Daily Mail that was the most prolific in the trade of illicit personal information, while the Mirror under the auspices of Piers Morgan is suspected for example of using voicemail interception to reveal Sven Goran Eriksson’s affair with Ulrika Jonsson.”
Piers Morgan is big enough and ugly enough to fight his own battles. But in the absence of any confession to phone hacking in his book, FactCheck can’t let Louise Mensch skip off into the sunset with her cloak of parliamentary privilege flapping in Morgan’s face.
Under parliamentary privilege, MPs have the right to say whatever they like in the House and they can’t be sued for libel for doing so.
But will she say it without that protection? Mensch has refused. Instead she refers America’s journalists to what she said in the Select Committee.
Perhaps they’ll get past her whoppers about Morgan’s book and pick up on her wider point: sniffing out corruption beyond News International’s gates.
Could this trail lead to The Mirror? Trinity Mirror says its position is clear: “Our journalists work within the criminal law and the PCC code of conduct”.
Yet David Cameron himself said in the Commons today: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mirror has to answer questions soon”.
By Emma Thelwell