Mirror group caught up in hacking storm

Britain's second biggest newspaper group had kept clear of the scandals that have plagued News International. That has now changed

One of the most puzzling aspects of the phone hacking scandal was how law-breaking could be so widespread at the News of the World – according to the criminal charges levied by the Crown Prosecution Service – but seemingly so absent from other tabloid newspapers.

Until today no-one from any of Trinity Mirror’s three national papers, for instance, had been arrested for intercepting voicemails.

Yet for years there has been persistent talk that journalists on  The Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People were no strangers to phone hacking.

Aware of the financial and reputational calamity a hacking scandal would cause for its own troubled empire of more than 100 newspapers, Trinity Mirror has responded to the rumours, hints and allegations with the same bald statement: “All our journalists work within the criminal law and the PCC code of conduct.”

The use of the present tense by a multi-million pound business specialising in words noticeably left the door ajar as to whether its staff had used hacking in the past.

Circumstantial evidence has suggested the possibility. Last year The Independent revealed that invoices identified a former Mirror Group figure as having paid private investigators up to £125 a time for mobile phone numbers and PIN codes years before phone hacking is said to have become commonplace at the News of the World.

Whether Mirror journalists hacked phones was a persistent line of inquiry by Lord Leveson investigation into press ethics. In testimony, the former Mirror business journalist James Hipwell asserted unambiguously that hacking had been used routinely at  the paper.

In a written statement, he claimed that he had witnessed Mirror journalists “carrying out repeated privacy infringements” by hacking celebrities, their friends, publicists and public relations executives.

He stated: “The openness and frequency of their hacking activities gave me the impression that hacking was considered a bog-standard journalistic tool for gathering information.”

Piers Morgan, the Mirror’s editor at the time – and now a CNN chatshow host – denied any knowledge of hacking and sought to diminish Hipwell’s credibility by referring to his imprisonment for an insider  trading scandal (under Morgan’s editorship).

In another high-profile intervention, the BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman claimed that Morgan had explained hacking to him during a memorable lunch in the Mirror’s boardroom.

Richard Wallace, Mirror editor at the time of Leveson’s hearings, admitted in his evidence that hacking “might well have been” taking place when he was Morgan’s showbiz editor.

Wallace agreed that a hacked voicemail could have been the source of a scoop revealing the affair between the England football manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson and the former television weather presenter Ulrika Jonsson.

For her part, Tina Weaver, then editor of the Sunday Mirror – who was arrested today – told the Leveson inquiry she could not give a guarantee that hacking hadn’t happened.

Trinity Mirror ousted Wallace and Weaver – former showbusiness journalists and one of Fleet Street’s power couples – from their respective editorships on the same day last May.

Since then Mark Lewis, the lawyer who helped humble Rupert Murdoch, has indicated he is representing several clients who claim their voicemails were intercepted illegally by Mirror Group journalists.

In the High Court last year, Mr Lewis lodged claims for invasion of privacy by Mr Eriksson and three others: Abbie Gibson, the nanny of David and Victoria Beckham, the former Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati and the former Blackburn Rovers footballer Gary Flitcroft.

Trinity Mirror has since applied to strike out the claims, stating there is no case to answer.

Its corporate response can be summarised as: “Well, show us the evidence.”

The arrests may well change its approach.

They suggest Scotland Yard is being as robust in its investigation into the practices at Britain’s second largest newspaper group as it has been at the largest, News International, where dozens of journalists have been arrested.

With evidence obtained from emails sent between current and former Mirror Group executives, Scotland Yard has compiled a preliminary list of potential victims whose voicemails are likely to have been illegally accessed by its journalists. One particular series of exchanges, between former journalists at News International and Mirror Group, is said to have discussed victims whose phones were potential targets for hacking.

Although a Mirror Group spokesman said that the publicly-listed company was “co-operating with the police”, The Independent understands that no emails from within the group’s archive has been handed to Operation Weeting.

Police sources nonetheless confirmed that the individuals represented by Mr Lewis – Mr Eriksson, Ms Gulati, Ms Gibson and Mr Flitcroft – have been identified in the preliminary list of potential victims.

In a break with its one-line statement of the post, Trinity confirmed it was providing legal support for Tina Weaver and the current editor and deputy editor of The People, James Scott and Nick Buckley.

The company added that it had not been in contact with Mark Thomas.

Listing the individuals under arrest, the company – which recently hired PR specialists Bell Pottinger Private – said: “The police are investigating allegations of phone hacking whilst they were on the Sunday Mirror during 2003 and 2004.

“We are cooperating with the police and we have no further comment to make at this stage.”

For a company battling (like other newspaper groups) falling sales and an uncertain future in a chaotic digital age, the arrests will have been as unwelcome as the resulting collapse in its share price.

However it cannot claim that it had no idea the storm was coming.

The Independent has learnt that a senior Mirror Group manager was told last summer about the nature of the police investigation into the group and the potential culpability of some of its journalists. The briefing is understood to concern specific references to named individuals.

Combined with the efforts of a supergrass, internal emails and a resilient Scotland Yard determined to get to the bottom of whether Britain’s best-selling newspapers broke the law, Trinity Mirror’s future may be much bleaker than the present.

Piers Morgan: A nervous wait for another former editor

As yet, Piers Morgan has not shared any knowledge of phone hacking with Scotland Yard – even though by his own admission he appears to be something of an authority on the subject.

Today the Yard, which is looking at alleged offences committed in 2003 and 2004, arrested Tina Weaver and Mark Thomas, who were editing the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People. At that time, Morgan was editing the Daily Mirror.

Morgan, now a presenter on CNN, was outspoken on hacking before it became a scandal. In 2003 he was filmed describing the process to Charlotte Church. “When they first came out, mobile phones… journalists found out that if the celebrity hadn’t changed their pin code… 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?”

A year earlier, as Jeremy Paxman would testify to the Leveson inquiry, Morgan teased TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson about private phone conversations she had with former England football coach Sven-Göran Eriksson. Paxman said Morgan had asked him about the security on his own phone. “He then explained that the way to get access to people’s messages was to go to the factory default setting and press either 0000 or 1234 and that if you didn’t put on your own code… his words: ‘You’re a fool’,” said the Newsnight host. “It was clearly something he was familiar with and I wasn’t.”

When Morgan published his memoir The Insider in 2005 he again referred to hacking, describing it as a “little trick”.

During the Leveson inquiry, Morgan was asked how he had heard a voice message left by Sir Paul McCartney for Heather Mills during their marriage break-up. In  2006, Morgan wrote: “He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate and even sang ‘We Can Work It Out’.” Morgan told the inquiry he didn’t believe he had listened to a illegally obtained message.

The Mirror four: Who's who

Tina Weaver One of Britain’s most successful female tabloid journalists. She was one of the longest-serving editors in the history of the Sunday Mirror and was a member of the Press Complaints Commission. She left Trinity Mirror abruptly last year with her partner, Richard Wallace the editor of the Daily Mirror, as the newspapers were merged into a seven-day operation. Weaver, 47, who was arrested in London today, is expecting a baby. Sources said she has signed a document explicitly declaring she had no involvement in phone hacking.

James Scott Known in the tabloid world as “Scottie”, he has edited the Sunday People since June, when Weaver and Wallace left. On the Daily Mirror, he landed a story about an affair between Ulrika Jonsson and Sven-Goran Eriksson that won Scoop of the Year at the British Press Awards in 2003. It was given to the Mirror’s “3am Girls” team, which editor Piers Morgan was promoting. Scott left for the People and then became deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror in 2004.

Mark Thomas The editor of the People between 2003 and 2007, Thomas worked as a chief reporter for the News of the World before following its former editor Piers Morgan to the Daily Mirror, where he rose to become deputy editor. He now works in public relations, running TM Media, which specialises in entertainment publicity and is recommended by Max Clifford. “For those in crisis, Mark is regularly called in to save reputations,” says the website.

Nick Buckley On his Twitter account, Buckley describes his life as deputy editor of the Sunday People as a “bizarre fusion of showbiz and politics”. He became Scott’s No 2 in June and before that was head of content on the Sunday Mirror.

Tabloid targets: The claimants

Sven Göran Eriksson First foreigner to be made England’s football coach. An affair with TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson behind the back of his then girlfriend Nancy Dell’Olio, made him a perfect target for Britain’s tabloids.

Shobna Gulati The actress appeared as different characters in both EastEnders and Coronation Street. Any insider detail on the two programmes is regarded as tabloid gold.

Abbie Gibson Nanny for the children of David and Victoria Beckham. In 2005 she leaked allegations about their private life to the News of the World, saying she had witnessed rows between the couple and that their marriage was on the verge of collapse. The story was dismissed by the Beckhams as untrue.

Gary Flitcroft The former Blackburn Rovers captain told the Leveson Inquiry that a story about him having extramarital affairs, which appeared in the Sunday People, had led to his father no longer coming to watch him play football because of chants against him, had deepened his father’s depression and had contributed to his suicide.

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