Piers Pressure: U.K. Hacking Inquiry Raises Fresh Questions for CNN’s Morgan

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A still image taken from handout video footage provided by the Leveson Inquiry on December 20, 2011 shows former Daily Mirror and News of the World editor Piers Morgan giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, regulation and phone-hacking in London on December 12, 2011 via video link from the US.

The dramatis personae have included characters called Hipwell, Fagge, Hoare, Crone, Pike, Diamond and Church. The plot has seen vice rewarded and virtue exploited. London’s hottest play, in the words of one of its cast members, Alastair Campbell, Downing Street communications chief during the premiership of Tony Blair, has given audiences “a mirror on a world they really didn’t know that much about…they do now know the truth and they are horrified.”  Yet this is no restoration comedy, but the real-life drama of the Leveson Inquiry, launched in the aftermath of the 2011 phone hacking scandal that shuttered Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid News of the World and shattered the British public’s vestigial faith in the press, politicians and police. On Dec. 21 the inquiry concluded its first, barn-storming run with a flourish, as the aforementioned Hipwell—James Hipwell, a former financial journalist on Britain’s second largest daily red-top, the Mirror—insisted that voicemail hacking had been “a bog-standard journalistic tool” at the newspaper during the editorship of another man with a name made for farce: Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan. The CNN host had given evidence the previous day by videolink from Los Angeles under the shorter moniker he adopted long before he came to prominence, Piers Morgan. Asked whether hacking occurred under his aegis he replied “I don’t believe so. To the best of my recollection, I do not believe so.”

The problem for Morgan, and for the inquiry which is seeking to establish how best Britain’s press should be regulated, is that Morgan’s testimony clashes with other accounts of his earlier incarnations as a red-top editor. (He edited the News of the World from 1994-5 and helmed the Mirror from 1995-2004.)

Morgan dismissed Hipwell’s version of events as “the unsubstantiated allegations of a liar and convicted criminal”—Hipwell was sacked by the Mirror and served time for buying shares he tipped in his own column. Some witnesses to Morgan’s past may prove harder to discount, not least because Morgan himself is one, a prolific diarist who has filled newspapers, magazines and books with his reminiscences. In a 2006 article  for the Daily Mail, Morgan recalled listening to a voice mail left by Sir Paul McCartney for the former Beatle’s then girlfriend, and later second wife, Heather Mills. It was a memoir the Leveson Inquiry was eager to explore. Robert Jay, the lawyer leading Morgan’s interrogation, and Lord Justice Leveson, the inquiry’s eponymous head, pressed Morgan to explain how he had come by the recording. Morgan stonewalled but eventually appeared to suggest that the source might be Mills herself. “All we know for a fact about Lady Heather Mills McCartney is that in their divorce case Paul McCartney stated as a fact that she had recorded their conversations and given them to the media,” Morgan said. Mills, who divorced from the former Beatle in 2008, gave this riposte on her website.

For the avoidance of doubt, I can categorically state that I have never ever played Piers Morgan a tape of any kind, never mind a voice message from my ex-husband.

Piers Morgan is doing all he can to deter the Leveson inquiry from finishing their important job.

Morgan is using me as his scapegoat and I would be more than happy to answer any questions that the inquiry would like to put  to me.

CNN—owned, like TIME, by Time Warner—has reportedly asked its star for a response to Mills’ statement; we’ll have to wait at least until the inquiry resumes on Jan. 9 to see if Leveson decides to take up Mills on her offer or to recall Morgan.

Mills boasts a turn of phrase almost as colorful as her dress sense, but even without a Mills soliloquy, the inquiry looks likely to pull in the crowds in 2012. Leveson indicated that Rupert Murdoch may be asked to testify. The tycoon’s July 19 appearance before the the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, conducting its own investigation into the dark arts of the British press, was box office magic even before his wife Wendi Deng deng’d his foam-pie-wielding assailant.

These hearings may be great entertainment. They aren’t cheap. The first three months of the Leveson Inquiry cost £855, 300—around $1,3 million. And it’s far from clear whether that’s taxpayers’ money well spent. Alastair Campbell is right that the inquiry has held up a mirror to the Mirror —and the rest of Britain’s unpopular popular press, most especially the now defunct News of the World. Testimony from journalists and their prey has revealed a cynicism that assumes all celebrities not only sign away the right to privacy but lust after as much publicity as the press will give them. There’s less evidence for Campbell’s assertion that the British public is “horrified” by this broader culture, though Britons were certainly horrified to learn that victims of crime and their families had been targeted by hackers just like common-or-garden reality TV stars. The waters have been muddied even on that apparently clear-cut issue after the British broadsheet, the Guardian, which in July broke the story that the mobile belonging to murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked by the News of the World, was forced to admit that its original account contained a key error. The tabloid had not, as the Guardian claimed, erased messages, an act that gave Dowler’s mother hope that her daughter was alive and using her phone.

The central charge remains unchallenged: that the News of the World hacked the phone of a murder victim. But the case highlights how difficult it can be to create a one-size-fits-all set of rules for press regulation. Guardian journalists—dubbed by Morgan during his Leveson testimony “the bishops of Fleet Street”—were pursuing a story of clear public interest, but the Guardian‘s mistake may have added to the perception that the News of the World was too sullied to save. One danger of an inquiry focusing on the bad deeds of the press is that the same judgment ends up being leveled at the entire press. If Leveson pays too much attention to restricting journalism and too little to empowering it, this drama will end, as it began, in tragedy.

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 .