If News International holds a soirée at the Conservative Party conference this October, it’s likely to be a subdued affair. At the zenith of Rupert Murdoch’s influence over British public life, invitations to such shindigs were as sought after as Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. Would-be gatecrashers who evaded fire-breathing, stiletto-clad dragonesses armed with clipboards and attitude still had to bypass ranks of uniformed police and protection officers signaling the inevitable presence of whichever Prime Minister currently held power. In 2003, the Prime Minister was Tony Blair, his Chancellor was the future U.K. premier Gordon Brown and both turned up for News International’s bash on the penultimate evening of Labour’s annual conference in the seaside resort of Bournemouth.
My invitation must have got lost in the post, so I hailed a passing former Cabinet minister to ask if he would take me as his plus one, but he too had failed to snag an invite. Defeat stared us in the face. And then we saw him: Piers Morgan, former protégé of Murdoch, plucked by the tycoon from comparative obscurity as a 28-year-old showbiz hack on the mass-market red-top, the Sun, to edit its Sunday sister title, the News of the World. Morgan repaid Murdoch’s trust in 1995 by defecting to he biggest British red-top tabloid not owned by Murdoch, the Daily Mirror. That defection must have hurt; at any rate, Morgan didn’t feature on the News International guest list either, but he readily agreed to lead a mission to penetrate its corporate defenses. In fact, no blagging, subterfuge or don’t-you-know-who-I-ams proved necessary. At the sight of Morgan, the dragonesses stepped aside, the police held open the doors and we swept into the room. There we found Blair and Brown, sipping warm white wine and frostily ignoring each other, and mingling with their hosts, the News of the World‘s then editor Andy Coulson, Rebekah Wade, at that time editor of the Sun, and News International’s then Executive Chairman Les Hinton.
Nobody should be surprised that the scandal that eight years later shuttered the News of the World, cost Coulson his job as communications chief for Britain’s current Prime Minister David Cameron, forced Rebekah Brooks née Wade from the pinnacle of News International and sparked the resignation of Hinton as CEO of Dow Jones & Co, and has also seen Coulson and Brooks arrested by investigators examining allegations of phone hacking and corrupt payments to police, now laps at Morgan’s feet. Before Morgan’s reinvention, as a judge first on Britain’s Got Talent, then on America’s Got Talent, and later with his emergence as Larry King’s replacement on CNN, the Briton occupied a very different role. He was a player, but largely behind the scenes. Politicians schmoozed him in the hopes of positive coverage. Not yet a global celebrity; Morgan pursued celebrity, not (primarily) his own, but the sorts of tales of starry and star-crossed romance, big names’ bad behavior and wardrobe malfunctions that are the red meat and strong drink of tabloids.
One such story concerned the turbulent relationship of former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney and model-turned-campaigner Heather Mills. In Morgan’s first memoir, The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, he writes of the pair’s first meeting in 1999, at an event organized by the Mirror. In a later entry, he describes a phone call from McCartney:
‘Look, man, I know you guys have a job to do, but I’m after a favor here,’ [McCartney tells Morgan.] ‘It’s true that Heather and I had a row in a restaurant and things got a bit out of hand. But it’s not been easy for her being with me, with all the crap that comes with it, and I’m just appealing to you as a Beatles fan to give us a break here. If every time we have an argument you guys splash it across the papers, then our relationship won’t survive and, you know, I’d like it to.’
I was stunned [Morgan narrates.] And to be honest, I felt uncomfortable about even having put him in this position. ‘Look, Paul, I really appreciate you calling. I know how hard it must be to do this, and it says a lot about you that you’ve done it. To be honest with you, I do want to give you guys a break and I’m going to pull the story, even if it enrages my staff.
No wonder the couple, who later married, felt moved to offer Morgan their sympathy after he was sacked from the Mirror in 2004 after unwittingly publishing faked photos that purported to show British soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees. “Paul and I just want to say how sorry we are and to offer a bit of solidarity,” Heather, by now Mrs Mills-McCartney, told Morgan in a phone call, recounted in his diaries.
And no wonder if Mills, who divorced her famous husband and shed his celebrated surname three years ago, feels aggrieved to think that a voicemail message McCartney left her after a row in 2001, perhaps after the very row described by Morgan, may have been listened to by Morgan. In a 2006 article, Morgan described just such an event. “At one stage I was played a tape of a message Paul had left for Heather on her mobile phone. It was heartbreaking. The couple had clearly had a tiff. Paul was pleading with her to come back.” Morgan concluded the anecdote with the kind of detail that have made his memoirs and columns such compulsive reading. “[Paul] sounded lonely and desperate and even sang We Can Work It Out.”
Before Britain’s scandal over phone hacking grew to epic proportions, the anecdote might have gone unnoticed. In the current environment, amid suspicions that the News of the World was not the only tabloid to deploy the dark arts in search of stories, Morgan’s words have attracted fresh attention. In an interview broadcast on the Aug. 3 edition of the BBC’s current affairs program Newsnight, Mills claimed to have extracted an admission of phone hacking during a 2001 call from a journalist:
[The journalist] said ‘I hear you’ve had a big argument with your boyfriend’, and I said ‘why would you know this?’ And he started quoting verbatim the messages from my machine. I wondered why [my messages] had already been listened to when it said ‘heard messages’. And he started laughing and I said ‘why are you laughing?’ I said ‘you’ve obviously hacked my phone and if you do anything with this story, because they were obviously very private conversations about issues we were having as a couple, then I’ll go to the police.’
Mills made clear that the journalist, whom she identified to the BBC, was not Morgan; the BBC confirmed that the journalist did not work for the Daily Mirror but for another title belonging to its parent company, Trinity Mirror. The newspaper group, which had already launched an internal investigation into its editorial controls and procedures, has reiterated its statement that its journalists “work within the criminal law.” And Morgan denies Mills’ allegations with a robustness that even his close friend Simon Cowell might find hard to equal. In a statement issued through CNN, Morgan sniped:
What I can say and have knowledge of is that Sir Paul McCartney asserted that Heather Mills illegally intercepted his telephones, and leaked confidential material to the media. This is well documented, and was stated in their divorce case. Further, in his judgment, the Honorable Mr Justice Bennett wrote of Heather Mills: ‘I am driven to the conclusion that much of her evidence, both written and oral, was not just inconsistent and inaccurate but also less than candid. Overall she was a less than impressive witness.’ No doubt everyone will take this and other instances of somewhat extravagant claims by Ms Mills into account in assessing what credibility and platform her assertions are given.
There is little doubt that if the allegations of hacking came solely from sources such as Mills, Britons would scarcely have turned a hair. The police acted in 2005 only after the News of the World targeted the royal family. The scandal only really took off this year, after revelations that ordinary folk, victims of terrible crimes, may have been targeted. There is little public sympathy for celebrities who complain their privacy has been infringed and quite possibly less still for Mills, who won few friends during her messy split from a national icon. (Update: McCartney has now told U.S. media that he suspects he was a victim of a phone hacking.)
During the July 19 session of the parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport committee that took evidence from Murdoch, Murdoch’s son James and from Brooks, Louise Mensch, a Conservative MP, wrongly asserted that Morgan had admitted to hacking phones in a passage in The Insider. In fact, Morgan writes of his suspicions that his own phone may have been hacked. Mensch has since apologized. But on Newsnight another member of the committee and fellow Conservative MP Therese Coffey suggested that Morgan should consider a return to the U.K. to “add more light” to the ongoing investigations. With three separate police inquiries, a judicial inquiry, two parliamentary committees, investigative reporters and lawyers for people who suspect they may have been targeted by tabloids all seeking to uncover the truth about Britain’s tabloid culture—about how its proprietors gained political influence and its journalists acted with apparent impunity—Coffey isn’t the only person who’d like to pose questions to the former editor of two red-tops.
But anyone tempted to write Morgan’s career obituary at this point should beware. He’s survived crises and setbacks only to emerge more ebullient—smug, his critics might say—and to ascend to greater prominence. His CNN ratings are rising. “One day you’re the cock of the walk; the next a feather duster,” reads his bio on Twitter. For now, at least, Morgan is still strutting and crowing.
Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .