Puffy British game-show presenter Piers Morgan, who also hosts a show on CNN about Twitter, is in the spotlight these days because he formerly edited Rupert Murdoch's News of the World and a competitor called the Daily Mirror, and as such is prima facie guilty of hacking into everyone's voicemails all the time.
Morgan, whose history as a tabloid editor was already pockmarked before the hacking scandal came along—he was fired from the Mirror after publishing faked photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners and had been accused of profiting from insider information gathered by his business reporters—has been notably silent about his former employer's troubles for most of the scandal's life cycle. Even as his former paper went up in flames, Morgan made no mention of Murdoch or News of the World on his show until Monday, when he invited fellow News Corp. veteran, Vanity Fair contributor, and close personal friend of the Murdoch family Vicky Ward to sniff Britishly about just how awful all this has been for poor Rupert. CNN likewise kept Morgan's name out of its coverage of the News of the World.
Until yesterday, that is, when its hand was forced by a member of Parliament named Louise Mensch, who asked the Murdochs about a passage Morgan had written in his 2001 book The Insider referring obliquely to phone hacking:
Piers Morgan, now a celebrity anchor on CNN, said openly in his book, clearly which was published before this whole 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, and clearly from the account that he gives, he did it routinely as the editor of the Daily Mirror.
Unfortunately, Mensch was slightly confused, which gave Morgan the perfect opportunity to righteously blast her on CNN. He hadn't admitted to phone hacking in his book—only to learning of the practice in 2001 after someone warned him that he could have been targeted. Mystified as to how rival reporters could have known about a meeting he'd had, Morgan writes:
But someone today suggested today that people might be listening to my mobile phone messages. Apparently if you don't change the standard security code that every phone comes with, then anyone can call your number and, if you don't answer, tap in the standard 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.
While it comes off as unctuously coy, it's no bald admission. CNN had Mensch on immediately after the hearing to repeat her charges, which she declined to do, citing the lack of parliamentary privilege. Anything she said in the hearing room was immune to a libel suit, but anything she said to Wolf Blitzer wasn't. So she clammed up. That gave Morgan, who phoned in to the show, an opportunity to grandstand like a television pro: "I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, or published any story based on the hacking of a phone. And what she did today was a deliberate in my view and outrageous attempt to smear my name.... And I think for her now to have the breathtaking gall to just sit here calmly and say i can't possibly repeat that because i haven't got privilege, is an outrage. And I call on you now Ms. Mensch to repeat it. Show some balls."
Mensch's misfire conflated Morgan's innocuous admission in his book with a more serious charge leveled last week by the British blogger Paul Staines, who writes under the name Guido Fawkes. Staines claimed that a 2002 Daily Mirror story about an affair between Swedish broadcaster Ulrika Jonsson and soccer coach Sven Goran Eriksson—the "Scoop of the Year" that Mensch referred to—was based on hacked voicemails, that Morgan knew it was, and that reporter James Scott has been "dining out" on those facts for some time.
James "Scottie" Scott, the Daily Mirror's showbiz reporter at the time, was listening into Ulrika Jonsson's voicemails when he was flummoxed by messages in her native Swedish. As fortune would have it, he was able to get a half-Swedish Mirror secretary to translate the mysterious voicemails. It was clear from the translations that the couple were having an affair. The male voice sounded just like the then England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. The paper put the allegation to the sexy Swedish shaggers and they coughed to the truth of the allegation. It broke on April 19, 2002.
Morgan has not directly addressed Staines' claims, and did not immediately respond to my email asking him to. (Nor did Scott.) [SEE UPDATE BELOW.] But his blanket denials ring false for a few reasons noted by BNET's Jim Edwards: A 2006 parliamentary inquiry found "681 instances in which the Mirror at some point paid a private investigator, Steve Whittamore, to allegedly obtain illegally private information on celebrities and other targets." Whittamore was convicted in 2005 of illegally obtaining private data for newspapers. The Mirror also employed Jonathan Rees, a private detective at the center of the hacking scandal who was bugged by Scotland Yard in an investigation into police bribery and accused (and acquitted) of murdering his former partner with an axe.
Perhaps the timing of the Mirror's employment of these men didn't overlap with Morgan's tenure there. Or perhaps it did, but Morgan had no idea what they were up to. Or maybe it was Wittamore who hipped Morgan to the possibility of voicemail hacking in the first place. In any case, Morgan certainly wouldn't be the first news executive who presided over a criminal network of data-vacuuming and now claims to have had no idea it was happening. He joins such esteemed company as Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch, and his old boss Rupert.
UPDATE: The story of how the Mirror got that Ulrika Jonsson story is muddier than Staines indicates. Press accounts at the time suggest that it was actually a News of the World exclusive that Morgan's Mirror got wind of before publication and stole. So it may be that NOTW reporters came onto it through listening to Jonsson's voicemails—she is currently suing that paper for hacking—and Morgan stole it from under their noses. If so, it would simply implicate Morgan in publishing information gained from hacking, not from commissioning or ordering that hacking.
[Photo of Morgan in 2009 (top) and with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1985 (bottom) via Getty Images]