Piers Morgan was last night pondering the dubious honour of being the only newspaper editor ever to have received the Press Complaints Commission's severest punishment - a "critical adjudication" - and to have received it twice.
The findings of the commission's three-month inquiry into share dealing at The Mirror ruled that the 35-year-old editor had breached its code of practice on several fronts: through his purchase of shares in two companies, Viglen and Wiggins Group, and through his "inadequate supervision" of the newspaper's former City Slickers columnists, Anil Bhoyrul and James Hipwell.
But it was for the columnists that the commission reserved its greatest condemnation. It said they had engaged in "numerous and flagrant breaches of the code" during their time atThe Mirror.
They had personally profited by buying shares then tipping them in their pages, sending the price rocketing, and then selling the shares at a profit, the PCC said. Mr Hipwell had done this on 25 occasions, Mr Bhoyrul on 16.
It made no finding against Tina Weaver, the deputy editor of The Mirror, who had also been implicated in the affair.
Lord Wakeham, the PCC chairman, said that it had been a "very bad case". But he appeared to play down suggestions that there had been deliberate wrongdoing. "It was a clear climate of slack as far as I'm concerned. It was all gay abandon; these things just seemed to happen, and the code was not impressed on people. I suspect it was more cavalier than anything else."
The PCC code, which is to be reviewed in the light of the case, states that while not illegal, journalists should not use their financial information for profit, or "buy or sell shares... about which they have written recently or about which they intend to write in the near future".
Lord Wakeham added that the PCC considered Mr Morgan to have breached the code on several occasions and in a serious way. "We have criticised him pretty severely indeed. We have also sent a copy of the ruling to the chief executive of the Mirror Group to indicate our considerable concerns, but I am pleased to say that The Mirror has instituted very tough rules in future."
A statement issued by Mirror Group Newspapers and Mr Morgan last night said that it accepted the adjudication, and "regretted" that the breaches had occurred, and that Mr Morgan had failed to prevent them. Mr Morgan said: "I regret my failure to enforce the code's provisions of financial journalism. I remain strongly committed to the code and to its observation." He added that new controls would prevent a reoccurrence.
But Mr Bhoyrul, who alongside Mr Hipwell now writes for Punch magazine, said the ruling had come "as no surprise" and announced that he and his colleague would sue for unfair dismissal. "My only concern is to seek justice and we will go to court for it," he said.
The commission concluded that Mr Morgan had initially known of Mr Hipwell's trading in mid-1999 and while he had warned the journalist verbally, he had failed to do enough to prevent the code being breached again in the future.
It said Mr Morgan had not acted "decisively" when he became aware of the scandal brewing around his £20,000 Viglen share purchase, and did not seek to sell them at no profit (Mr Morgan has since sold the shares and donated all profits to charity). In his defence, he said he had bought such a substantial amount on a relative's advice, and because of the general "buzz" about Viglen.
The PCC also found Mr Morgan had been in technical breach of the code over his dealing in shares in Wiggins Group, which he bought after the company had first been tipped by the paper's columnists.
But unless a Department of Trade and Industry inquiry throws up dramatic new facts, the future of the tabloid editor is thought to be secure. He has survived an internal inquiry, and even PCC insiders yesterday admitted that "it was an unfortunate case. He is not an editor we have problems with". Technically, it should be noted, this latest adjudication, albeit severe, refers to the Mirror "culture" and not just Mr Morgan personally.
Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the commission is understood to have specifically requested the presence of its lay members at yesterday's meeting. In the event, two members were absent: Phil Hall, the editor of the News of the World, and Viscountess Runciman, chair of the recent Police Federation report on drugs.
But the PCC is aware the share dealing is the subject of a separate DTI/Stock Exchange inquiry. Aware that it does not have the same powers of disclosure, it has not claimed "absolute" evidence for its findings.