- PIERS Morgan’s sworn public denials of involvement in ‘phone hacking’ and other illegal information gathering at Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) are to get a forensic courtroom examination, a top judge has ruled
- THE CONTROVERSIAL former Daily Mirror editor – today one of Britain’s most recognisable public figures – will now become a focal point of a big Mirror phone hacking trial set for next January
- PRINCE Harry is among 68 people currently suing MGN for harassment and misuse of private information; others that may go to trial include actors Ray Winstone, Martine McCutcheon, and Antony Cotton, and the entertainer David Walliams
- AMONG the allegations MGN faces is that Morgan, other senior executives, the newspapers’ lawyers and Board directors colluded to cover up news-floor crimes, and misled the London stock-exchange as the plc raked in millions in profits
- MGN – a subsidiary of Trinity Mirror Group (now called Reach plc) – is denying a top-level ‘executive’ cover up – although admits its newsrooms ran extensive criminal networks to create stories, as;
- FIVE more of its former national newspaper editors with close boardroom connections are implicated in wrongdoing – while the company spent more than £5m on illegal or allegedly illegal private investigators
By Dan Evans, Founding Editor
PIERS MORGAN’S allegedly extensive knowledge and encouragement of criminal news-gathering at the Daily Mirror while he was editor and his connections to a claimed boardroom cover-up conspiracy will face a full courtroom examination, a High Court judge has ruled.
Lawyers acting for Mirror Group Newspapers last week fought but failed to keep the outspoken 55-year-old journalist and broadcaster out of a case alleging the publisher’s board and top lawyers turned a blind eye to years of criminal activity at its three British national tabloids.
Significantly, it means the evidence that ITV Good Morning Britain host and star Mail columnist Morgan gave to the Leveson Public Inquiry into Press abuse in 2011 – in which he denied knowing of newsroom criminality – will for the first time be tested against detailed allegations to the contrary in a civil court of law where a High Court judge will make findings.
And a legal source told Byline Investigates: “If the Claimants prove their case at the trial, there would no doubt be calls to investigate Piers’ evidence to the inquiry, which would then be called into question. If the evidence was anything less than the truth, it could have very serious ramifications for him.”
It is specifically a criminal offence in England and Wales under the Inquiries Act 2005 to knowingly give wrong or distorted evidence to a public inquiry, punishable by up to 51 weeks’ jail, a £1,000 fine, or both.
Lord Justice Leveson himself described Morgan’s denials of knowledge of phone hacking at the public inquiry as “utterly unpersuasive”.
Leveson was not at the time of his 2012 report after Part 1 of his Inquiry – conducting the sort of exercise that would allow him to make findings of culpability or to enable him to find that phone hacking went on at MGN titles.
However, the company was forced to admit in 2015 – in the teeth of compelling whistle-blower evidence and an ongoing police probe – that it was a common practice at the Sunday Mirror (at a time when Morgan was its de facto ‘Editor in Chief’).
The latest Morgan development, decided in rulings made last week by Mr Justice Mann, one of Britain’s most senior media judges, form part of an extraordinary case, argued by 68 Claimants currently suing the UK’s biggest newspaper publisher, that its legal department and certain board members colluded to conceal the widespread use of illegal news-gathering that drove millions of pounds of the plc’s profits for at least 12 years.
As first revealed by Byline Investigates in 2019, Prince Harry is among the latest tranche of alleged victims of MGN’s ‘historic’ lawbreaking to be taking legal action for harassment and misuse of private information. Actors Ray Winstone, Martine McCutcheon, and Antony Cotton, and the entertainer David Walliams, are among a sub-group of 18 of those 68, selected as eligible to go to trial in January.
Morgan, the Claimants say, is key because of his closeness to MGN board members, and because in his powerful role as editor of the Daily Mirror he was involved in a number of alleged incidents that showed his knowledge and encouragement of unlawful news-gathering.
The incidents include one in which Morgan, according to the eminent British journalist Jeremy Paxman, allegedly openly discussed the hacking of TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson’s phone, at a lunch hosted by the then company chairman Sir Victor Blank, and even teased her about the content of her private phone messages.
But, despite Paxman’s evidence being that Morgan’s behaviour toward Jonsson bordered on “bullying”, both Morgan and Blank claim to have no “recollection of this taking place”.
Morgan also allegedly admitted being well aware of the widespread use of phone hacking at its height in the early 2000s in a 2007 interview published in Q magazine and in a Desert Island Discs interview on BBC Radio 4 in 2009.
Morgan’s controversial nine-year editorship ended in disgrace in 2004 after he published phoney photos of British troops ‘abusing’ Iraqi prisoners. Now it is being alleged he also oversaw the extended use of private investigators (PIs), allegedly connected to corrupt police, to steal the bank account details of Prince Michael of Kent, among many other targets.
Southern Investigations – the PI firm to which Morgan is being particularly linked – is just one among many operating in the shadowy world of non-governmental surveillance used wholesale by MGN to look into the subjects of stories, from all walks of life, including even senior members of the judiciary.
“The Claimants will refer, in this regard, to the fact that Southern Investigations were used by MGN to obtain financial information for use in MGN’s stories, and that the Editor at the time Piers Morgan and the Legal Department were well aware of this,” reads part of the case concerning Morgan and his board.
‘no surprises’ rule
Southern Investigations and its principal owner Jonathan Rees, were the focus of Murder in the Car Park, an acclaimed Channel 4 documentary aired in June, which revisited the UK’s most-investigated unsolved murder – that of Daniel Morgan, a partner in the business killed by axe to the head in a pub car park in 1987 in a cold-blooded crime, to which Rees denies any connection.
Further, it is alleged, another board-member contemporary of Morgan’s – MGN’s former legal manager Paul Vickers – operated an open ‘no surprises’ rule with the newsroom lawyers who, the Claimants say, were well aware their journalists were sourcing and confirming stories using illegal methods.
Notwithstanding Vickers’ alleged knowledge, the Claimants argue it is “inconceivable” MGN’s board was ignorant to the use and functions of the many private investigators the company employed because it is alleged to have spent more than £5 million on them over a 12-year period, at a time the company was also trying to cut costs.
Trinity Mirror’s former Chief Executive Sly Bailey is among those said to have “misled” the Leveson Inquiry, under oath, while the company put out a“false” impression of firm denial of newsroom criminality in public statements to the London Stock Exchange, although in its Defence the company denies it did any such thing “deliberately”.
The plc is also denying wrongdoing over accusations it destroyed, lost or “spoliated” masses of evidence relevant to its allegedly illegal activities, including phone records pre-2002, email archives relating to Morgan and top company lawyer Marcus Partington, microfiches of PI invoices, and backup hard-drives of the company’s servers.
Indeed, the Claimants say there is evidence to show the highest newsroom echelon generically were well aware of the illegal nature of much of the PI work MGN commissioned.
For example, they argue, Mirror Group Editorial Manager John Honeywell sent an email to Managing Editor Pat Pilton on February 9, 1999, about the cost of “searches” undertaken by the Sunday People – then under the editorship of Neil Wallis, who denied, and was acquitted of, phone hacking charges covering his time at the News of the World a few years later, at the Old Bailey – in which Honeywell recognised much of the money had been spent on “illicit” checks.
On the Claimants’ case, informed as it is by some eight years’ worth of documents that MGN has been ordered by the Court to disclose, including internal emails, phone logs, expenses details, and payment trails including tens of thousands of invoices to private investigators, no fewer than five other editors of MGN’s national newspapers are said to be implicated, including Neil Wallis, Tina Weaver, Mark Thomas, Richard Wallace and James Scott.
MGN claims former employee Piers Morgan ‘found culpable already’
IN A dramatic turn of events, when opposing the inclusion of Morgan in the case, his former employers argued he’s already been found culpable for covering up phone-hacking.
Resisting the amendments to the so-called Particulars of Common Facts and Issues (POCFI) in which the case against the Trinity Mirror plc board (now Reach plc) and the MGN legal department is set out across 49 pages, the publisher’s lawyers claimed the inclusion of Morgan was unnecessary, as – the company wrongly said – Morgan had already been found in a 2015 judgment of Mr Justice Mann to have covered-up phone hacking and given wrong information to the Leveson Inquiry.
However, the judge rejected this stating he had made no findings against Morgan personally.
The earlier judgment (Gulati & others vs MGN) did make strong criticisms of Richard Wallace (who succeeded Morgan at the Mirror) and Tina Weaver (Morgan’s former Mirror Deputy whom he endorsed to become Sunday Mirror Editor, and whose long service covered the phone-hacking period), and their evidence to the Inquiry.
While the Claimants have permission from the Judge to rely on these points, he has not made any findings on the allegations, which he will be doing at the end of January’s trial. An updated version of MGN’s defence to the new allegations is due to be served at the end of October 2020, and the current 84-page Defence can be found here.
Richard Spearman QC – representing MGN, which is defending the claims – vigorously resisted the inclusion of Morgan in the case against the board, insisting: “Mr Morgan’s purported knowledge as to the extensive use of unlawful information-gathering activities is irrelevant.”
But Justice Mann said: “It seems to be important to the Claimants’ case that they should seek to establish Mr Morgan’s knowledge, and they will make a case that he was closer to the Board than other editors.
“I do not know how they will make it or seek to make it, but it seems to me to be a potentially relevant matter, and I shall therefore allow the pleading in on that basis as well. This amendment may be made.”
Morgan is also said to have known about the hacking of former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson’s phone – “Mr Morgan knew it (the story) was unlawfully obtained”, said the Claimants’ barrister David Sherborne – as well as making a string of public admissions to the fact that he was well aware of the practice of voicemail interception during his watch as MGN’s most senior journalist.
Justice Mann went on: “Mr Spearman makes the point that it is already established that editors knew of unlawful activities and that adding, as Mr Spearman put it, one more editor does not really add anything.
“One more editor may to a degree strengthen Mr Sherborne’s generic case… so far as he needs to establish widespread activities known to senior members.
“The more editors that knew about it, potentially the greater the likelihood that people above and beyond editors knew about the activities as well.”
David Sherborne for the Claimants went on: “They were well aware of what Southern Investigations were doing and the payments being made, and that these were unlawful.”
Despite the seriousness of the allegations against him, Morgan is not expected to defend himself from the witness box in the latest unfolding chapter in the MGN phone hacking saga. He may offer to give evidence for the Mirror Group, but MGN may not want him to face what would be a withering cross-examination by the Claimants’ counsel.
However, his expected absence from proceedings would be consistent with MGN’s strategy of not calling journalists as witnesses to defend either the stories they wrote, or their former employers.
The legal source said: “Piers Morgan is someone who is happy to turn up anywhere and everywhere to give his opinion on things. It is plain and obvious that if Mirror Group wanted to they could easily get in touch with him and ask him to give evidence to what he says the facts are, under oath, and explain the apparent discrepancies in the documents and other information which appear to contradict, on the Claimants’ case, what he said to Leveson.
“If MGN choose not to call him as a witness the judge will be entitled to draw whatever inferences he will from that.
“It ought to be easy to get a journalist to come along and say ‘no no it was nothing to do with hacking’ then the judge is entitled to make of it what he will.
“He has done this already in the first four original claims (Gulati); on his judgment he said it is notable that the other side has not got any journalists to confirm that a source is not hacking.”
* The case continues…