Has 'Mirror' king of chutzpah finally taken a gamble too far?

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The Independent Online

Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, is likely to acknowledge that, if he has got it wrong this time, he may lose his job. Downing Street is salivating at the prospect of the anti-war lobby scoring a spectacular own goal. Within Britain's armed forces there is anger, but also not a little trepidation, of the fall-out.

The photographs, of British soldiers apparently beating and urinating on a young Iraqi civilian, have been beamed around the world, leading to widespread condemnation, the most vociferously, unsurprisingly, in Muslim countries. With turmoil continuing in Iraq, and with Britain about to send four thousand more troops into the cauldron, the stakes are high.

There have been persistent rumours, fuelled by rival publications, that the Daily Mirror has been the subject of a sting, and will be embarrassingly exposed. The two soldiers who supplied the photographs are said to have received a four-figure sum, although the company refuses to discuss the matter.

For Mr Morgan, it may provide the toughest test yet of his durability as Mirror editor. He certainly has no shortage of experience of difficult scrapes. In the early days of his editorship his newspaper was widely criticised for the notorious "Achtung! Surrender" front page during the Euro 96 international football tournament. Other misjudgements have been even less subtle. Last October the Mirror ran a front-page exclusive revealing that Heather Mills McCartney had given birth to a boy. The next day, the McCartneys confirmed she had given birth to a girl.

While some believe this week's furore over the Iraqi pictures could lead to his unseating, Mr Morgan's supporters will point to a number of headline-grabbing successes which have ensured he has remained at the helm, despite falling circulation.

Most notably, his decision to place the reporter Ryan Parry as a footman in Buckingham Palace, revealing intimate details of the life of the Royal Family, won him many plaudits from his Fleet Street rivals.

Such accolades greeted last weekend's publication of the pictures from Iraq. Initially, at least, it looked like a triumphant piece of journalism. The timing of the publication could not have been more apposite. It came a day after shocking images of American forces torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad.

The impact was instant, with the pictures flashing around the world, earning the newspaper an estimated £120,000 in syndication fees. But within 12 hours some in the military and a variety of armchair experts were attacking their veracity.

As the Royal Military Police began its investigations, the Government started its offensive, declaring that the Mirror had a "duty" to reveal the identities of the two soldiers. Opposition parties were not exactly supportive of the newspaper. The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, prophesied that their publication would lead to suicide bombings against Britain even if they proved to be fake, and Nicholas Soames, the Conservative defence spokesman, accused Mr Morgan of irresponsibility.

The Mirror has agreed to hand over all photographs to the inquiry. Members of the RMP's Special Investigations Branch believe that analysing the backgrounds of the pixellated photographs of Soldiers A and B, in Monday's paper, both taken in southern Iraq, would lead to them being tracked down.

The Mirror continues to say it has full faith in the two "whistleblowers", and that their claims have been backed up by independent investigations in southern Iraq.

There have been a number of claims of malpractice against British troops in Iraq. The Royal Military Police and the RAF Police are investigating 10 other cases against British soldiers, involving seven Iraqi deaths. No one has yet been charged.

It was against this background that one of the soldiers approached the northern office of the newspaper. He was interviewed, and produced the second soldier, as well as the photographs.

The Mirror is said to have made extensive checks into the background of the two soldiers, and also inquiries in the Basra region. Executives in the newspaper say no doubts remained afterwards about their veracity.

What is not clear, however, is whether the photographs themselves were analysed by outside experts. Some in the paper say this was not the case. A spokeswoman for the newspaper said yesterday: "This is not something which we want to talk about. We are satisfied they are authentic."

Nor is it clear how long the newspaper had the photographs before they were published. Initially, the company said it was several weeks. Now it seems it may have been a much shorter period.

Just after 4.10pm last Friday, the Mirror contacted the Ministry of Defence with the allegations. Attempts were made to transmit the photographs electronically. This proved problematic, and there was a considerable delay before they got through. By then the MoD machine had already swung into gear. No less a figure than General Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of General Staff, appeared to condemn the alleged abuse. An investigation was announced within the hour.

A senior officer said yesterday: "To be honest, none of us were sitting around looking at the photographs to see whether they were genuine. General Jackson spoke because it was the right thing to do. This came a day after the American story. Our view was that what was important was the allegation, not the pictures. We are in an extraordinarily delicate time at the moment in Iraq. We did not want to be identified with the Americans. We had to be seen to be taking this very seriously."