By Kate Holton and Georgina Prodhan
LONDON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Talk show host Piers Morgan told a British judicial inquiry on Tuesday that he had never approved phone hacking during his time as a tabloid newspaper editor, and that his published boasts had merely been repeating rumours about journalistic “dark arts”.
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 from 1995 to 2004.
Morgan has consistently denied any involvement in the practice, which resulted in the closure of Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid. But politicians called for him to appear before the inquiry after his name became associated with the scandal.
His editorship of the News of the World predates hacking claims but his tenure at the Mirror was at the presumed height of phone-hacking activity.
“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.
The scandal, which has severely damaged the reputation and value of Murdoch’s News Corp, has until now largely focused on malpractice at the News of the World, which was shut down in July as public outrage peaked.
Morgan has written in his diaries about a “little trick” for eavesdropping on voicemails that he heard of as early as 2001.
In a column in 2006, he boasted about having listened to a message left by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney for his future wife, Heather Mills.
Asked about the incident, Morgan refused to say who had played him the recorded message, saying he was protecting a source, and said he did not think it was entirely unethical to listen to someone’s voice messages.
Leveson said he might call Mills, whom Morgan has since described as a “monster”, as a witness.
On the question of the phone-hacking trick, which amounts to little more than guessing the owner’s factory-issue PIN number for retrieving messages, Morgan said he was merely repeating rumours that were widespread at the time.
He rejected a suggestion by a lawyer representing hacking victims that the Mirror had turned down a story tip offered by a reader in 1999 about the ease of hacking into voicemails because the newspaper wanted to employ the practice itself.
Morgan had described the one News of the World journalist who went to jail for the crime, Clive Goodman, as a scapegoat for the whole industry.
“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.”
Steve Hewlett, media consultant and broadcaster, said Morgan had perhaps become a victim of his own vanity.
“Piers Morgan has gone out of his way in the past, in his book and various interviews, to sound as if he knew exactly what was going on,” he told Reuters.
“And then, today, he has to make himself out merely as a purveyor of industry gossip. At best he comes over as someone who will say anything for effect, and at worst he comes over as slippery.”
As the scale of the phone hacking problem emerged, Mills said in an interview that a senior journalist at the Trinity Mirror Group, which owns the Daily Mirror, had admitted hacking her phone.
Mills said the journalist had confronted her with details of a message left by McCartney in early 2001 after a row with her. She said the journalist was not Morgan, but that he had been editor of the paper at the time.
Mills’s allegation briefly turned the spotlight on the behaviour of other tabloids, which have for years competed ferociously to secure front-page stories.
It also turned public attention onto Morgan, who took over Larry King’s chat show slot on CNN as he developed a television career in the United States with “Piers Morgan Tonight”.
Morgan told the inquiry that the Daily Mirror had employed private investigators and a man known as “Benji the Binman”, who would trawl the bins of the rich and famous to generate stories.
“He lived in a sea of rubbish bins. It’s a very unusual way to live your life,” he said, arguing that such behaviour was unethical but not illegal.
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 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 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 portion of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB that it did not already own.