Ian Burrell: Suddenly, Piers the insider seemed to know very little

Morgan was able to scoff at the lawyers' lack of understanding of what makes a good tabloid story

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The Independent Online

It can't have been easy for the most garrulous of British media figures to limit himself to one word answers. But Piers Morgan appeared to understand that his previous willingness to blab about Fleet Street's dirty secrets had got him into a fix. As a result, the host of CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight found himself sitting in a whitewashed Los Angeles room with a light above his head that gave the appearance of an interrogation chamber as he faced questions via video-link from the Leveson Inquiry.

As Robert Jay QC, went through preliminaries, Morgan responded with a clipped "Yes". Later, as the questions became more accusatory, he was obliged to switch to "No". And that way he mostly stayed out of trouble, apart from the occasional more effusive response.

When Jay asked about "binology" and the use by Morgan's Daily Mirror of the notorious scavenger Benjamin "the Binman" Pell, the former editor was drawn out. After admitting to having Elton John's bank statements, he claimed it was lawful practice to take material from rubbish tips. "I'm not sure you can," barked Lord Justice Leveson, apparently seeing something grubbier behind Morgan's neat and sober suit.

Piers had his worst moment during questioning over how he came to be in possession of a highly personal recorded message left for Heather Mills by Sir Paul McCartney during the break up of their marriage. Having already admitted hearing the tape in a 2006 article for the Daily Mail, the veteran hack fell back on the first rule of journalism – to deflect further questions.

But after repeatedly saying: "I'm not going to discuss where I heard it and who played it to me," he said it had been suggested that Heather Mills had recorded telephone messages from her husband and played them to journalists. Lord Justice Leveson said he would be calling the former model to give evidence.

Morgan, who denied any knowledge of phone hacking at the Mirror, declined to say who first told him about the technique. His reticence was apparently not born from a desire to protect a source but simply because he could not remember.

As Jay sought to provoke further indiscretions he dragged skeletons from Morgan's closet – the excesses of his editorship of the News of the World, the Viglen share scandal and the fake Iraqi photographs at the Mirror. But Jay and David Sherborne (representing the hacking victims) showed a lack of understanding of what makes a good tabloid story and allowed the ex-editor – a seasoned practitioner in verbal jousting – to scoff at their criticisms and conspiracy theories.

Being Piers, he couldn't resist ending with a statement, risking Lord Leveson's wrath again by accusing the Inquiry of imbalance and undue negativity. But by the end we had learnt little new. Except perhaps that the hack who called his book The Insider suddenly appeared not to know very much at all.