x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Piers Morgan caught up in phone-hacking scandal

Former Daily Mirror editor - now working in the US as Larry King's replacement on CNN - faced calls yesterday that he return to Britain to answer questions from inquiries being conducted by both the police and parliament.

LONDON // Former model Heather Mills has claimed she has proof that a British tabloid, the Daily Mirror, hacked her phone a decade ago when she was dating ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.

As the tentacles of the phone-hacking scandal began to extend beyond Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan - now working in the US as Larry King's replacement on CNN - faced calls yesterday that he return to Britain to answer questions from inquiries being conducted by both the police and parliament.

Ms Mills told the BBC Newsnight programme on Wednesday that, early in 2001, she had rowed with her then-boyfriend and had flown to India.

McCartney had later left a conciliatory message on her voicemail only for a Mirror Group Newspapers journalist to call her shortly afterwards "quoting verbatim the messages from my machine".

Ms Mills, who later married the singer only to divorce after four years, named the journalist involved although the BBC deleted this in their report.

She told the programme that she warned the journalist: "You've obviously hacked my phone and if you do anything with this story, I'll go to the police."

According to Ms Mills, the journalist responded: "OK, OK. Yeah, we did hear it on your voice messages, I won't run it."

Although the BBC made it clear that the journalist involved was not Piers Morgan, he did refer to the voicemail in an article he wrote for the Daily Mail in 2006.

"At one stage I was played a tape of a message Paul had left for Heather on her mobile phone. It was heartbreaking," he wrote.

"The couple had clearly had a tiff, Heather had fled to India, and Paul was pleading with her to come back. He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate, and even sang We Can Work It Out into the answer phone."

Last week, James Hipwell, a financial journalist on the Mirror who was fired after being jailed for insider dealing on share tips when Morgan was editor, claimed that phone hacking was not confined to the News of the World but was widespread at other newspapers, including the Daily and Sunday Mirror, and the People, another of the group's Sunday tabloids.

There have also been claims from Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United footballer, and TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson that their phones had been hacked by Mirror journalists.

Yesterday, Therese Coffey, a member of the parliamentary culture and media committee, which is investigating the phone-hacking scandal, called on Morgan to return to the UK to answer questions from both MPs and the police.

She said she regarded Ms Mills' allegations as "very strong" and added: "I just hope that the police take the evidence and go with it and if Morgan wants to come back to the UK and help them with their inquiries, and I don't mean being arrested in any way, I'm sure he can add more light.

"I think it would help everybody, including himself and this investigation, if he was able to say more about why he wrote what he did in 2006."

Ms Coffey, a Conservative MP, said that she "didn't see any point in (Morgan) necessarily just staying in the US and issuing statements".

Further pressure on Morgan came from Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, which the Mirror tabloids have traditionally supported.

"He's got to answer now," Ms Harman told Sky News yesterday, in a move regarded as a toughening of attitude towards the Mirror group from a party that has, until now, concentrated its fire on Murdoch-owned, Conservative-supporting tabloids.

Ms Harman said in a statement later: "It's not good enough for Piers Morgan just to say he's always stayed within the law. There are questions about what happened with Heather Mills' phone messages that he needs to answer.

"The public rightly expects that we will get to the bottom of phone hacking. That's why it is so important that the police investigation looks at all the evidence and leaves no stone unturned.

"And it is why we insisted on a full police investigation and the judicial inquiry having the powers and broad remit to get to the bottom of illegal practices in our media."

CNN had issued a statement from Morgan on Thursday night. "Heather Mills has made unsubstantiated claims about a conversation she may or may not have had with a senior executive from a Trinity Mirror newspaper in 2001.

"I have no knowledge of any conversation any executive from other newspapers at Trinity Mirror may or may not have had with Heather Mills.

"To reiterate, I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone."

A spokesman for Trinity Mirror, the newspapers' parent company, said: "Our position is clear. All our journalists work within the criminal law and the PCC code of conduct." The company, however, has yet to address publicly the issue of past practices at its newspapers.

dsapsted@thenational.ae