What did Piers Morgan tell Jeremy Paxman about phone hacking?

The Leveson Inquiry hears of an interesting conversation.

Today at the Leveson Inquiry, Jeremy Paxman revealed he was present at a lunch in September 2002 when the then Mirror editor Piers Morgan allegedly explained in detail how to access the voicemails of a mobile telephone.  According to the Guardian report, Paxman said:

I was really struck by something Piers Morgan said. I was sat between him on my left and the editor of Sunday Mirror on my right. Ulrika Jonsson was sat opposite.

Morgan said, teasing Ulrika, that he knew what had happened in conversations between her and Sven-Göran Eriksson, and he went into this mock Swedish accent.

Now I don't know whether he was repeating a conversation that he had heard, or he was imagining this conversation ... It was a rather bad parody.

I was struck by it because I am wet behind the ears; I didn't know this sort of thing went on.

He turned to me and said: "Have you got a mobile phone?" I said yes. He said: "Have you got a security setting on the message bit of it?" ... I didn't know what he was talking about.

He then explained that the way to get access to people's messages was to go to the factory default setting and press 0000 and 1234 and if you didn't put your own code in, his words were, "you are a fool".

There is no evidence that Morgan himself accessed any voicemail. Morgan has always denied there was phone hacking at the Daily Mirror under his editorship from 1995 to 2004.

But what remains unclear is the extent of his knowledge of the techniques and practices of phone hacking.  As the New Statesman has pointed out, Morgan was present at an award ceremony in May 2002 when he was teased in public by Sun editor Dominic Mohan.  Mohan was reported as saying he thanked "Vodafone's lack of security" for the Mirror's showbusiness exclusives.  

Morgan provided his own recollection of the lunch attended by Paxman in his oral evidence when he appeared at the Leveson Inquiry:

Jay: Did you listen to Ulrika Jonsson's voicemail messages in relation to Sven Goran Eriksson?

Morgan: No, I did not.

Jay: Do you recall a lunch at the Daily Mirror hosted by Victor Blank on 20 September 2002 when you advised Ulrika Johnson to change her PIN number and you started mimicking her Swedish accent? Do you remember that occasion?

Morgan: No, I don't remember the specifics. I think I remember her coming to a lunch.

Jay: Breaking it down into its two parts, might you have advised her to change her PIN number?

Morgan: I don't recall anything like that.

In the same evidence, Morgan also was asked about his diary entry for 26 January 2001, which stated:

But someone suggested today that people might be listening to my mobile phone messages. Apparently, if you don't change the standard security code that every phone comes with, then anyone can call your number, and if you don't answer, tap in the standard four digit code to hear all your messages.  I'll change mine just in case, but it makes me wonder how much public figures and celebrities are aware of this little trick.

One would think that anyone would remember mimicking a Swedish accent at a lunch with Ulrika Jonsson, but it seems not.  In any case, there are now some more questions about what Morgan knew about the techniques and practices of phone hacking, and when.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of New Statesman

 

Piers Morgan. Photograph: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder