LONDON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Talk show host Piers Morgan told a British judicial inquiry on Tuesday he had never sanctioned phone hacking during his time as a tabloid editor, as he faced tough questions over his inolvement in the “dark arts” of journalism.
Morgan, now a high-profile CNN talk-show host in the United States, edited the Rupert Murdoch tabloid at the heart of the hacking scandal, the News of the World, from 1994 to 1995 before going on to edit the Daily Mirror newspaper from 1995 to 2004.
Morgan has consistently denied any involvement in the practice which resulted in the closure of Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid but politicans had called for him to appear before the high-profile inquiry after his name became associated with the scandal.
Asked why he had previously given interviews in which he said that everyone knew about phone hacking, Morgan said he was merely repeating rumours at the time and that no one at the Mirror had been found guilty.
“Not a single person has made any formal or legal complaint against the Daily Mirror for phone hacking, not one,” he said, in often testy exchanges with the lead prosecutor in the inquiry and the judge, Brian Leveson.
Referring to Clive Goodman, the one journalist who went to jail for hacking, Morgan had said he had been made a scapegoat. But he said that still did not mean that he had had any prior knowledge of the issue.
“The Fleet Street rumour mill, which is always extremely noisy and often not entirely always accurate, was buzzing since this blew up with just endless rumours that it spread a lot further than Clive Goodman,” he said. “I felt sorry for him.”
Much of the questioning centred on an article Morgan wrote for another newspaper, the Daily Mail, in 2006 in which he made reference to how he had listened to a phone message left for the ex-wife of former Beatle Paul McCartney.
The article was written in 2006 and before any allegations of phone hacking had surfaced and caused such trouble.
As the scale of the phone hacking problem emerged this summer, McCartney’s ex-wife Heather Mills gave an interview about the incident and said that a senior journalist at the Trinity Mirror Group had admitted hacking her phone.
Mills said the journalist had confronted her with details of a message left by McCartney in early 2001 following a row between the couple. She said the journalist was not Morgan, but that he was editor of the paper at the time.
Asked about the incident, Morgan refused to say who had played him the recorded message and said he did not think it was entirely unethical to listen to someone’s voice message.
The phone hacking scandal, which severely damaged the reputation and value of Murdoch’s News Corp at the height of the scandal this year, has largely focused on the malpractice at the News of the World.
But the allegation by Mills briefly turned the spotlight on the behaviour of other tabloids, which have for years competed ferociously to secure front-page stories.
It also turned the spotlight onto Morgan who took over from Larry King as he developed a high successful television career in the U.S. with the “Piers Morgan Tonight” show.
News Corp has accepted that people working for the News of the World hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians and the victims of crime to generate stories. It said earlier on Tuesday that it had settled legal claims with a further seven people as it works through the separate allegations.
The scandal, which dominated news headlines in July, has also damaged the reputations of British politicians and police, who were all shown to be too close to Murdoch’s media group.
At the height of the scandal, News Corp closed the 168-year-old News of the World and pulled its most important planned acquisition in Britain in decades, the $12 billion purchase of the rest of BSkyB it did not already own.