Editor digs in as rivals go on attack

Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, thought he had the perfect scoop when the images of torture from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad were first broadcast in America 10 days ago.

Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, thought he had the perfect scoop when the images of torture from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad were first broadcast in America 10 days ago.

Locked within the newspaper's safe in Canary Wharf, London, was a set of pictures that purported to show two British soldiers abusing a terrified Iraqi. Their publication a week ago yesterday caused a sensation. As first General Mike Jackson, Britain's most senior soldier, and then Tony Blair condemned the apparent abuse, the tabloid's billing of a "world exclusive" seeming, for once, entirely justified.

Within 24 hours the newspaper's scoop was buried beneath an avalanche of doubts over the pictures' authenticity. The BBC led a charge of sceptics questioning almost every aspect of the stills, from the soldiers' webbing to the make of the truck in which the alleged assault of the prisoner took place.

This weekend Mr Morgan must be reflecting on a week in which he went from triumph to near disaster in a bout of extraordinary tabloid in-fighting.

The editor was given a taste of what was in store on Monday when The Sun and the Daily Express gleefully reported the doubts of "military experts" over the photographs.

"WE TOLD THE TRUTH" was his defiant riposte as the paper made a "point-by-point rebuttal" of claims that the pictures were faked.

The effort left its rivals unimpressed: "LIARS" was the considered response of the Daily Express on its front page on Tuesday, while The Sun showed its readers how easy it would have been to mock up the abuse pictures.

As investigators from the Royal Military Police arrived on the editorial floor at Canary Wharf to question the reporter who wrote the story that morning, heat was building on the editor.

There were calls for his resignation in the Commons and accusations he had needlessly placed serving soldiers at risk from a backlash prompted by the untrue story.

He said that he had "nothing to hide" and was "relaxed". "Not one new fact has emerged that exposes our story or pictures as a fake."

The editor's confidence appeared to be borne out by authoritative briefings from inside the military investigation that the pictures may be impossible to verify. In the absence of a confession from the men involved - and the newspaper refuses to reveal its sources - it is left to the sceptics to disprove the images by other means, and no definitive technical evidence has yet been advanced.

Nevertheless, Mr Morgan has subtly prepared a second line of defence should they be proved fakes. In an interview that appeared in The Daily Telegraph, he said: "Although I absolutely understand that it's very important that the veracity of these photographs is seen to be established - ie: as an accurate record of events that happened - what I would say is that the bigger issue is the fact that we have brought to public attention the allegations of ill-treatment of detainees by British troops."

His chosen standard of veracity as "an accurate record of events" leaves open the possibility that the pictures were staged to show a prior, unrecorded, incident.

To underline the second point, that the pictures served a greater truth of abuse in Iraq, the paper printed first the testimony of a third soldier involved in beatings and then what it presented as another "trophy" picture, yesterday.

Compared with the genuinely shocking pictures from Abu Ghraib, the slightly bloodied mouth of a handcuffed Iraqi captive is tame and inconclusive as a condemnation, however.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Glover, who served with the accused regiment, the Queen's Lancashire, told the BBC yesterday it was a "typical image" and proved "conclusively that the original set of photographs are false".

Senior officials in the Ministry of Defence said last night that the RMP investigation was likely to take weeks. Too much is at stake for the final answer to be fudged.

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