Piers Morgan and phone hacking: what even he can’t deny
By his own admission Piers Morgan knew about illegal voicemail hacking years before it became a public scandal – and he did nothing about it. Though he was a national newspaper editor at the time he did not expose it. Nor did he alert the police, Nor did he take any steps to ensure it didn’t happen at his paper. He just turned a blind eye.
This was a dereliction of his duties as an editor, journalist and citizen. Worse, if he had done the right thing when he says he first knew, thousands of blameless people might not have suffered unwarranted intrusion and press cruelty.
In fact it is no exaggeration to say that if Morgan had acted responsibly, Milly Dowler’s phone might never have been hacked.
Here are the undisputed facts.
On page 279 of his 2005 book, The Insider, which was presented as if it was a diary, Morgan wrote under the date 26 January 2001 that he had been warned that people might be listening to his voicemails. He went on to explain:
‘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 much public figures and celebrities are aware of this little trick.’
The date should not be taken too literally: Morgan has accepted vagueness about dates. (And of course it is only his word.) But as for the substance, when he was questioned about this at the Leveson Inquiry he did not seek to retreat from it.
So, to be clear, by his own admission he knew at least in early 2001 how hacking was done and that people were at risk. That was more than five years before the first journalist was arrested for it. He must also have known straight away that it was illegal, so what did he do with this knowledge?
At that time he was editor of the Daily Mirror, a post he had held since 1995 and in which he would remain until his sacking in 2004. The right thing for a national newspaper editor to do, surely, was to get his reporters to investigate this criminal practice and then expose it in public. That would have alerted potential victims, deterred perpetrators at whatever papers they worked, and perhaps even prompted police action – just the kind of crusading activity the press tell us they exist for.
And strikingly, that is what had happened in Ireland at the Irish edition of Morgan’s own paper. In 1998 a Mirror reporter in Dublin hacked the voicemails of the then Irish prime minister and promptly made the fact public on the front page to demonstrate the dangers. Nothing prevented Morgan doing something similar.
Bear in mind that after January 2001 thousands of people were victims of hacking, including victims of crime and terrorism, people in witness protection, bereaved families, people whose private lives offended the morality of editors, people who were simply witnesses to public events and ordinary people who were related to famous individuals or in relationships with them. At the very least, hundreds of these were victims of Morgan's own newspaper while he was editing it.
If he had chosen to do so he could have taken timely action to prevent much if not all of this – and he might even have prevented the hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone in 2002 – but instead he just turned a blind eye.
Nor is there any evidence of him doing the other thing we might expect from a senior executive of an important company who is in possession of such knowledge: so far as we know he took no steps to find out whether any journalist on his staff had hacked mobile voicemails, nor did he ban the practice at his paper. Nor did he tackle the rampant practice of employing private investigators to get people's mobile numbers so they could be hacked. Had he done any of those things he might have halted what we now know was a huge and relentless campaign of hacking by the Mirror papers.
Morgan has confirmed that, at a Mirror lunch in 2002, he warned Jeremy Paxman about hacking. And the following year, 2003, he also warned the singer Charlotte Church. She recorded an interview with him, part of which was later broadcast by Channel 4, and it included the following significant exchange:
Morgan: ‘There was a spate of stories that came out because of mobile phones. When they first came out – mobile phones – journalists found out that if the celebrity hadn’t changed their pin code, right…’
Church: ‘Yeah, you can access their voicemail.'
Morgan: ‘…you can access their voicemail. Just by tapping in a number. Are you really telling me that journalists aren’t going to do that? If they know they can ring up Charlotte Church’s mobile phone, listen to all her messages…'
Church: 'My God.'
This recording takes Morgan deeper. He admits on tape that he is aware of ‘a spate of stories that came out’ because of mobile phone hacking. He also presents as something like an impossibility the idea that if Church’s phone was known to be vulnerable it would not have been hacked by journalists.
In short, by 2003 at the latest Morgan, by his own admission, wasn’t merely aware that hacking by journalists was possible; he knew it was actually happening and that stories were being published as a result.
It was still three years before the hacking scandal broke and he was still editor of the Mirror but he still did nothing to investigate hacking or expose it to the wider public. Nor, again, did he alert the police or take action inside the Mirror papers.
A perplexing position
And if, for the sake of argument, we were to accept his claim that in 2001-3 he believed it wasn’t happening at the Mirror papers (though it definitely was), that makes Morgan’s position all the more perplexing, because in that case he must have believed it was only his rivals who were breaking the law.
Let's think about that. In this scenario Morgan thinks his own paper is in the clear but his rivals are up to their necks in criminality – and that criminality is obviously giving those rivals a significant competitive advantage in getting big stories. What more reason could he have asked for to expose hacking in the Mirror? Not only would it have been a public service, but it would also have been extremely good for business.
Yet still Morgan did not do it, and so by his silence and inactivity he enabled the hackers.
There you have it. Merely on the evidence of his own words, and without taking any account of the great volume of evidence about Morgan and hacking that has been brought forward by other people, it is very clear he has a lot to be ashamed of.
Finally, what might Piers Morgan say if he was forced to account for all this? He might well take the same line he tried on the judge at the Leveson Inquiry – that he never really knew about hacking, he just heard industry rumours. The judge didn't believe him (he said on page 613 of his report that the evidence 'clearly proved' Morgan knew it was happening), and anyway that's not a defence. He was an editor, and the responsibility of editors, when they hear rumours about criminal activity, is to go out and establish whether they are true. Otherwise they are just covering it up.