Will Piers' tabloid past return to haunt him?

The former editor turned celebrity TV interviewer has some explaining to do today as he faces an inquisition over phone hacking
  • @iburrell

Once again it is time for Piers Morgan, CNN's great inquisitor, to come up with some answers. Today he will be talking about one of his favourite subjects, the cut-throat tactics of the British popular press, and he will do so via his chosen medium of live television.

But much as Morgan craves the limelight, his appearance today before Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into media standards should not be an exercise in the type of light entertainment for which he is now known. The seemingly irrepressible journalist turned media celebrity is being called to account for his tabloid past.

It is not the first time, by any means, that this particular newsman has found himself at the centre of the story. He was sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror and humiliatingly escorted out of the paper's offices in London's Canary Wharf nearly eight years ago.

The charge back in 2004 was that the Daily Mirror under his editorship published front page photographs falsely purporting to show the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. Morgan's response was to try to ride out the storm, refusing to apologise and defiantly challenging his adversaries to produce conclusive evidence against him.

Even when the Ministry of Defence said the pictures were not even taken in Iraq, he refused to accept that they were fakes. But it didn't work. Mr Morgan was sacked by the board of Trinity Mirror, which feared the damage he was causing to its corporate reputation.

The charge today is that Morgan is more closely linked to the phone hacking scandal than he claims. Once again his problems stem from material which he has chosen to place in the public domain. He has made a succession of admissions intended to minimise the felonies of hacking former colleagues, by suggesting that such behaviour was widespread and accepted. Just as in 2004, he has protested his innocence and invited those who denounce him to produce proof.

Morgan possibly believed he could tough out the fake pictures furore because he survived an earlier insider-dealing scandal which led to a four-year inquiry into the Mirror by the then Department of Trade and Industry. He bought £20,000 worth of shares in the technology company Viglen the day before they were tipped by the Mirror's City Slickers investment column. Two Mirror journalists were jailed, but Morgan was not charged and held on to his job.

When he failed to see out the fake pictures row, many thought his career in the high echelons of the media was over. But he reinvented himself for television and, instead of writing about the stars, the founding editor of the Bizarre showbiz column in The Sun now lives the life of one.

His ability on the small screen was spotted by Simon Cowell, who gave him a place on the judging panel of America's Got Talent, and by ITV's Peter Fincham, who awarded him a contract to interview British cultural figures from Gordon Brown to Jordan, reducing many of them to tears with his shamelessly personal lines of questioning.

Such successes led to him being chosen to replace Larry King on CNN, an appointment which stunned those parts of the British media establishment that considered him a lightweight. Next month, Piers Morgan Tonight will mark its first anniversary and the network has said it is "extremely pleased" with the show's performance so far (though it is hardly a ratings success).

Morgan, the youngest-ever editor of the News of the World, appeared to have left his jealous rivals behind, but his past has again caught up with him. Admissions in his published diaries and in a succession of interviews and written articles have shown how thoroughly familiar this particular tabloid journalist was with the practice of phone hacking. Though he has denied that he personally did such a thing, or commissioned others to do it, he has some explaining to do. Former colleagues, including one of the City Slickers, have emerged from the shadows to try to further implicate him.

No doubt the ebullient Morgan, who will appear by video link, will believe he can put in a star performance. Ultimately, he must hope that CNN, like Trinity Mirror, doesn't come to see him as a liability it can do without.

Questions he must answer

Insider knowledge

In your 2004 book The Insider, you published a diary entry for 26 January 2001 which shows you were fully aware of phone hacking. It states: "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." How did you learn of this practice and did you forbid your journalists from using it?

McCartney message

In 2006 you wrote an article in the Daily Mail in which you admitted handling a recording of a voice message that Sir Paul McCartney had left for his wife. You admitted playing it to colleagues. "He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate, and even sang 'We Can Work It Out' into the answerphone," you wrote. How could this tape have been obtained legally?

Sympathy for Goodman

In 2007, following the jailing of Clive Goodman, you told Press Gazette: "I feel a lot of sympathy for a man who has been the convenient fall-guy for an investigative practice that everyone knows was going on at almost every paper in Fleet Street for years." Which papers other than the News of the World took part in hacking?

'Everyone was doing it'

Also in 2007, you told Naomi Campbell, who was interviewing you for GQ, that you didn't regard the hacking affair as serious because "loads of other newspaper journalists were doing it". How do you know this?

Private investigators

In 2009, when appearing on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs, you refused to condemn the methods used by private eyes who were employed by newspapers "because obviously you were running the results of their work". As editor of the News of the World and then of the Daily Mirror what practices were used by private investigators hired by your papers?

Hacking 'endemic at Mirror'

How do you answer the fact that last July, James Hipwell, one of your former reporters on the Mirror, claimed that hacking was "endemic" at the paper when you were editor and that it was "inconceivable" you didn't know about it?

Getting the story at all costs

In evidence to the Leveson Inquiry last month, a former News of the World colleague Paul McMullan accused you of introducing a culture at the paper that he described as "get that story at all costs and I don't care what you have to do." Did you sanction illicit practices while you were editor?