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Piers Morgan: ‘A Pretty Despicable Human Being’

Following the landmark judgment against the Mirror Group in the High Court, Byline Times is reprinting Paddy French’s June 2015 Press Gang article about Piers Morgan and unlawful information gathering

Former Mirror editor Piers Morgan speaks to the media at his home in west London, after a High Court judge ruled that there was “extensive” phone hacking by Mirror Group Newspapers from 2006 to 2011. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

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“You don’t get to be editor of the Mirror without being a fairly despicable human being.”

Piers Morgan to Kate Winslett: The Insider (2005)

When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2009, Piers Morgan was challenged about phone hacking. Presenter Kirsty Young asked him about dealing with people who listened to phone messages.  “People who tap people’s phones … how did you feel about that?” 

Morgan didn’t deny the allegation: “I’m quite happy … to have to sit here defending all these things I used to get up to … I make no pretence about the stuff we used to do.” 

But after the revelation in July 2011 that Rupert Murdoch’s journalists had hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, he changed his tune. When the American Daily Beast website resurrected his Desert Island Discs comments in 2011, Morgan insisted: “For the record … I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, or published any stories based on the hacking of a phone.” 

But, in fact, the Daily Mirror had printed an article based on phone hacking more than a decade earlier. It was just as mobile phones were taking off — and Piers Morgan had been Daily Mirror editor for more than two years.

Early in 1998 one of the paper’s journalists in Dublin realised it was possible to access messages left on the mobile phones of senior Irish politicians. Reporter Karl Brophy — based at the Irish Parliament — proceeded to listen to messages left on the phone of the Irish leader, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.  He also successfully listened to messages left on the phones of other Cabinet ministers. 

Brophy’s article — published as an “Exclusive” on Saturday, 18 April 1998 — went into great detail about how phone messages could be hacked: “The phone tap can be operated by anyone who knows the number of the mobile phone they wish to listen in to.”  The article explained that mobile phones were sold with a standard password for stored messages that most people never changed. “That means that anyone can listen in to another person’s messages by simply phoning into their electronic mailbox and dialling the digits 0000. Once they have done this the hacker has unlimited access to all the messages.” 

The article was accompanied by an editorial.  This stated:  “If Richard Nixon had lived in Dublin he would have had no need for Watergate. Instead of teams of bungling burglars all he would have needed was a mobile phone to tap into the thoughts of his political rivals.” 

The piece continued:  “The Irish Mirror discovered this amazing security breach and chose not to keep it under wraps. It is to be hoped the gap has been plugged before some unscrupulous eavesdropper has used it for sinister [purposes].” 

There was to be no phone hacking scandal in Ireland. 


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The Open Backdoor

Not a word of the story appeared in the mainland editions of the Daily Mirror. This was despite the fact that several million people of Irish descent live in Britain — thousands of them Daily Mirror readers. And the implications of the story for the British political establishment were obvious. 

If British mobile phones were anything like their Irish counterparts, there was a potential security problem. 

There were also strong connections between the Irish edition and the paper’s headquarters in London’s Canary Wharf. The man in charge of the Irish Mirror was Craig Mackenzie, brother of Kelvin Mackenzie, Mirror Group deputy chief executive. Kelvin Mackenzie was editor of the Sun when Piers Morgan started on the paper in the late 1980s.  Both Mackenzie brothers were friends of Morgan’s. 

Press Gang spoke to Karl Brophy last week. He said he wrote the story at a time when mobile phones were taking off.   “When you got your phone in those days it clearly … told you to change your PIN immediately,” he said.  “The thing was that most older people didn’t bother.” 

“So, one day, I just started phoning mobiles of politicians and seeing if they had changed their PINs. A lot hadn’t so I changed all the PINs of the ones who hadn’t to a single four digit number so nobody else could listen in.” 

“I thought the fact that voice messages … of government ministers and advisers could be so easily accessed was rather serious – especially considering where we were in 1998 with the Peace Process …” 

In fact, the historic Good Friday agreement had been signed a week earlier. All the ministers Brophy hacked immediately changed their PIN numbers after he told the government what he’d done. 


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Tipped Off

Fifteen months later the Daily Mirror in London were told about security problems with mobile phones. 

Welsh sales manager Steven Nott rang the paper in August 1999 about a flaw in Vodaphone’s system.  He talked to Mirror special projects editor Oonagh Blackman.   He told her that if people did not change the standard Vodaphone 3333 PIN number, anyone could dial in and listen to messages.  

Nott claims that, initially, Blackman was enthusiastic but after 12 days told him the paper wasn’t interested. The paper later sent him a £100 cheque with a statement saying it was in relation to “mobile phone scandal.” 

Nott later told the Leveson Inquiry:  “I accused the Daily Mirror of keeping the phone hacking method for their own purposes.” 

But, in addition to the Irish Mirror story, there’s evidence the paper’s journalists were already deeply involved in the “dark arts” of illegal news-gathering, including phone hacking.


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Princess Diana

Central to this operation was senior reporter Gary Jones and his dealings with a corrupt firm of private detectives. Jones had been News of the World crime reporter when Piers Morgan edited the Sunday tabloid in 1994-1995. 

Jones won the Press Gazette Reporter of the Year award in 1995 for his scoops. One of the most dramatic was a story about anonymous calls being made by Princess Diana. This was also one of the key stories in Piers Morgan’s career — it impressed Rupert Murdoch who liked big, international controversies. Especially if it also involved an attack on the British establishment he despised.

This worldwide exclusive was based on a leaked investigation report from Scotland Yard.  Press Gang — in the article Whodunnit? — revealed Piers Morgan almost certainly authorised an enormous payment to a recently retired senior police officer for access to the report. The sum is believed to have been in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. 

Piers Morgan was appointed Daily Mirror editor in 1995 and Gary Jones joined him the following year. 

Documentary evidence shows that by October 1997 Gary Jones was responsible for organising much of the paper’s clandestine operations.  Jones was using the controversial detective agency Southern Investigations to illegally access information. The agency had also been working for the News of the World from the late 1980s — including the period Piers Morgan was editor. 

The firm was run by private eye Jonathan Rees.  Rees had been a suspect in the murder of his partner Daniel Morgan in 1987. Daniel Morgan’s place as Rees’ partner was taken by former Scotland Yard detective sergeant Sid Fillery. Fillery had been part of the homicide team investigating the murder until his superiors realised he was a friend of Rees.

Southern Investigations provided Gary Jones and the Mirror with one scoop after another.

The evidence comes from a secret operation — Two Bridges — mounted by anti-corruption detectives at Scotland Yard. They bugged the offices of Southern Investigations and, in September 1999, raided the firm and many of its network of informants.  From the files generated by this operation, Press Gang has already shown that 

— in September 1998 phone hacking may have played a part in an exclusive about news presenter Kirsty Young’s new relationship with millionaire businessman Nick Young. In our story Down In The Gutter we showed that Southern Investigations followed Young over several days. The paper’s reluctance to publish the story straight away suggests the original source of the story may have come from phone hacking ,,,

— in October 1998 Gary Jones and Oonagh Blackman published an article revealing the confidential mortgage details of members of the committee which set interest rates. In our article Assault On The Bank Of England we showed that Southern Investigations had illegally “blagged” the information from banks and building societies. The firm sent one set of doctored invoices to the Daily Mirror accounts department but Press Gang obtained a confidential statement sent to Gary Jones marked “For Your Information Only” which reveals the true nature of the operation.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Invoices generated by Southern Investigations were usually heavily disguised. “Confidential enquiries” was the phrase used to cover up illegal activity ordered by Gary Jones on behalf of the Mirror.

Four of these invoices include parts of telephone numbers. The first was in October 1997 — long before the Irish Mirror published its piece. Southern Investigations was billing Jones for “confidential enquiries” relating to a telephone number showing just the dialling code 01480 (Huntingdon).  In 1998 there were three more invoices — again with only part of the number given.

The sums involved — around £300 each — suggest these “confidential enquiries” involved print-outs of calls made from the numbers. Southern Investigations had people inside phone companies who made copies of itemised phone calls.

Just how corrupt the relationship between Gary Jones and Jonathan Rees actually was is shown by a dramatic row which took place in July 1999. 

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Caught on Tape

It’s Tuesday 6 July 1999 at the offices of Southern Investigations in Thornton Heath, South London.  Jonathan Rees is busy.  Some of his work is legitimate routine bread and butter stuff like serving writs and tracing people.  But increasingly his time is taken up with obtaining confidential information and selling it to newspapers like the News of the World and the Mirror Group.  

Unknown to him, every word he says today will be recorded.  A bug has been planted in the building by anti-corruption detectives from Scotland Yard as part of Operation Two Bridges.  Two Bridges has two aims. One is to generate information about the murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987.  The second is part of an attempt to prevent Southern Investigations from corrupting police officers. 

An internal Scotland Yard document — later leaked to the BBC Home Affairs correspondent Graeme McLagan — spelt out the concerns. Rees — and his partner, ex Metropolitan Police detective Sid Fillery: 

“.. are alert, cunning and devious individuals who have current knowledge of investigative methods and techniques which may be used against them.”

“They use some of the techniques in their own daily activities.” 

“Such is their level of access to individuals within the police, through professional and social contacts, that the threat of compromise to any conventional investigation against them is constant and very real.”   

But on that Tuesday — 6 July 1999 — Rees is oblivious to the fact that his office is bugged.  When he rings Gary Jones at the Daily Mirror to discuss invoices, he believes the conversation is private. Rees says he’s faxing through a full list of invoices for the work done for the Mirror Group (including the MirrorPeople and the Sunday Mirror) that year.  The total is £16,991 for the five months.   The list includes nearly £6,000 for the illegal supply of itemised print-outs of calls made from phones.  

Rees says “… when it comes through you’ll see the invoice, with lots of stars next to them, and roughly billed at about £300 odd — which is print-outs.” Rees tells Jones there are 19 of these print-outs with the initials of the reporters who ordered them, with “G.J. being you.” 

Later that day Rees and Jones have another discussion about the lack of detail on the invoices relating to these print-outs. Jones is under pressure from the paper’s accounts department to provide more information on the Southern Investigations invoices.

Rees loses his temper:“Well they are printouts … this is tiresome, fucking tiresome … we are not going to put the numbers in there because what we are doing is illegal… I don’t want people coming in and nicking us for criminal offence, you know.”

When this conversation takes place, Gary Jones is sitting at his desk in the Daily Mirror newsroom on the 22nd floor of the skyscraper at Canary Wharf. A few yards away is the editor’s corner office. Can Piers Morgan have known absolutely nothing about Gary Jones’ illegal activities?


Operation Two Bridges comes to an abrupt end in September 1999.  The bug in Southern Investigations reveals Rees has a client fighting his estranged wife for custody of their child. Rees agrees to organise a conspiracy with a corrupt police officer to plant cocaine in the wife’s car. The plan is to saddle her with a drugs conviction — so proving her to be an unfit mother.

The police pounce on the conspirators. Rees and the client are given seven year prison sentences. The corrupt police officer is gaoled for five.  Sid Fillery is not involved. 

When police closed in on the conspiracy, they also arrested many of those suspected of being involved in illegal news-gathering. One of them was Doug Kempster, a reporter with the Sunday Mirror, part of the Mirror group. An internal police report shows some senior police officers wanted a conviction:

“It is likely that journalists and private investigators who actively corrupt serving officers would receive a long custodial sentence if convicted. There will be a high level of media interest in this particular investigation, especially when involving journalists. The Metropolitan Police will undoubtedly benefit if a journalist is convicted of corrupting serving police officers. This will send a clear message to members of the media to consider their own ethical and illegal involvement with employees of the Met in the future.”

Police submitted a file to the Crown Prosecution Service which decided not to charge the reporter.  

Kempster’s arrest sent shock waves around senior management at the Mirror Group.  But it did not stop illegal news-gathering at Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror.  With Jonathan Rees in gaol, the paper turned to another private eye — Steve Whittamore.  By the time he was arrested for breaches of the Data Protection Act in 2003, the paper had spent at least £92,000 with the private eye. 

In our article Whodunnit? we exclusively revealed that one of the Mirror reporters who apparently commissioned work from Whittamore was Tom Newton Dunn. Today, he’s the political editor of The Sun. In the early 2000s Dunn’s name was recorded by Whittamore as the Mirror contact for a criminal record check of a parliamentary candidate.  

This was Adrian Flook, who later became Tory MP for Taunton. Newton Dunn does not answer our emails.

Piers Morgan and Phone Hacking: What Even He Can’t Deny

There is a lot of evidence about the former Mirror editor and hacking, but how much has he already admitted? More than you might think reveals, Brian Cathcart…

Leveson Evidence

Is it possible Piers Morgan didn’t know what was going on at the Mirror when he was editor?  

During the Leveson Inquiry journalist James Hipwell gave evidence about phone hacking when he worked at the paper between 1998 and 2000.  Hipwell was a financial journalist and worked close to the paper’s showbiz reporters.  He said they hacked openly and frequently. 

Hacking was “a bog-standard journalistic tool for gathering information.”  

He had no direct evidence Piers Morgan was involved but added:  “I would say that it is very unlikely that he didn’t know it was going on … The newspaper was built around the cult of Piers. He was the newspaper. Nothing happened at the newspaper without him knowing.”

When he gave evidence, Morgan was contemptuous of Hipwell. Hipwell had been gaoled for six months for insider dealing in 2000 while working for the paper’s City Slickers column. He bought shares in a company owned by Alan Sugar before they were tipped by the column. The shares rocketed in value the next day.

Piers Morgan also bought shares but always insisted he didn’t know they were going to be the subject of a Mirror article. 

In a statement to Leveson, Morgan wrote: “I note that Mr Hipwell is a convicted criminal who changed his story on a number of occasions during the City Slickers investigation, in part to wrongfully implicate me. “I believe any testimony he gives to be inherently unreliable.” 

Leveson, though, found Hipwell a credible witness: 

“… the Inquiry does conclude that the practice of phone hacking may well have taken place at the Mirror titles at the time Mr Hipwell was working there …” 

Leveson also questioned Piers Morgan about his comment after the 2007 gaoling of News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman for hacking royal phones. Morgan had been Goodman’s editor at the News of the World in 1994-1995.

“… I feel a lot of sympathy for a man who has been the convenient fall guy for an investigative practice that everyone knows was going on at every paper in Fleet Street for years.”  

Morgan told Leveson he was talking about the “rumour mill” at the time — and that phone hacking wasn’t happening at the Daily Mirror.

Leveson was caustic: “This was not, in any sense at all, a convincing answer. Overall, Mr Morgan’s attempt to push back from his own bullish statement to the Press Gazette was utterly unpersuasive.”


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State of Play (in 2015)

More and more evidence is emerging about the “dark arts” at the Daily Mirror.  So far Operation Golding, the Scotland Yard operation into phone hacking at the Mirror Group, has seen 15 journalists — including Piers Morgan — questioned under caution.  The investigation continues.

Scores of civil claims are also generating large amounts of information. In May Mr Justice Mann ordered the Mirror group to pay eight victims a massive £1.2 million in damages. Six were victims of the Daily Mirror during Piers Morgan’s tenure — including the actress Sadie Frost and the footballer Paul Gascoigne.

The judgment also revealed that the Mirror papers: “admitted paying over £2.25 million (in over 13,000 invoices) to certain named private eyes in the years from 2000 to 2007.”

Mr Justice Mann noted that the Mirror’s legal team acknowledged:  “that ‘an unquantifiable but substantial’ number of the inquiries made of the agents is likely to have been to obtain private information that could not be obtained lawfully.”

Originally published on Press Gang as ‘Dial M for Morgan’ on 29 June 2015. He did not respond to requests to comment.

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