CNN celebrity interviewer Piers Morgan refused to disclose details Tuesday about his most damning link to Britain's phone hacking scandal — his acknowledgment that he once listened to a phone message left by Paul McCartney for his then wife Heather Mills.
In an eagerly awaited video link appearance before the U.K.'s media ethics committee, Morgan, who replaced Larry King on CNN, was visibly tense, sometimes hostile and often rejected characterizations of his actions made by inquiry lawyers as "nonsense."
The stakes were high for Morgan. More than a dozen journalists have been arrested, senior executives with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. media empire have lost their jobs, and top U.K. police officers have resigned over their failure to tackle the phone hacking scandal. His testimony Tuesday was given under oath, and Morgan could be subject to criminal proceedings if he was found to have violated any British laws.
Legal settlements announced
Rupert Murdoch's News International said Tuesday it has settled claims brought by Princess Diana's former lover James Hewitt, ex-Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten, TV presenter Ukrika Jonsson, model Abi Titmuss, and Paul Dadge, who helped rescue victims of the 2005 London transit bombings. Theatrical agent Michelle Milburn and Calum Best, the son of soccer legend George Best, round out the list. The terms of the payments were not disclosed Tuesday.
Before his U.S. television career, Morgan ran two British tabloids — first Murdoch's News of the World and then the Daily Mirror, owned by Murdoch competitor Trinity Mirror.
A key line of questioning centred on comments Morgan made in a 2006 article in the Daily Mail tabloid. In it, Morgan said he was played a phone message left by the former Beatle on Mills's answering machine, describing it in detail and noting that McCartney "even sang We Can Work It Out into the answerphone."
Mills, who went on to divorce McCartney in one of most expensive separations in British history, has said there's no way Morgan could have obtained the message honestly.
Morgan on Tuesday stubbornly refused to answer almost any questions about how he came to hear the message, saying: "I'm not going to start any trail that leads to the identification of a source."
But when asked by inquiry chief Lord Justice Brian Leveson whether he could supply any information to back the assertion that he had heard the recording legally, the 46-year-old journalist said he couldn't.
Memory 'not great'
Earlier, Morgan said he "doesn't believe" he had ever listened to hacked voicemail messages — and dismissed earlier interviews in which he'd discussed phone hacking at length as having been based on rumour and hearsay.
He also refused to say who had filled him in about the practice.
"My memory's not great about this. It was a long time ago," he said.
The inquiry heard earlier Tuesday about the culture in tabloid newsrooms — one described by some witnesses as being scarred by bullying.
Steve Turner, the general secretary of the British Association of Journalists, said he had dealt with more than a dozen cases of bullying in the newsroom in recent years. He blamed diminishing circulation and "the demand to produce better stories and more of them from a diminishing workforce" for some of the pressure, but said the culture at Murdoch's News of the World was particularly challenging.
That, he said, may have "pressured people more than most into behaving appallingly."
Tabloid tall tales
The inquiry heard earlier Tuesday from reporter Sharon Marshall, whose book Tabloid Girl: A True Story detailed the misdemeanours of Britain's press — including faked expenses, manufactured quotes, unscrupulous reporters, hot-tempered editors and worse.
Marshall took pains to distance herself from her own book, saying she never intended to accuse anyone of wrongdoing and that the last half of the title — "True Story" —might have been misleading.
"I intended this as a comical tale," she said.
One by one, she dismissed her nearly all her own stories — which her book insists are accurate — as "dramatization," "topspin," "a good yarn," "a joke," or an "embellished shaggy dog tale."
True or not, Morgan seems to have approved; In a blurb splashed across the cover, he called the book "hilarious and gossipy."
Separately, the lawyer for former England soccer player Paul Gascoigne suggested that the sportsman's legal action against the News of the World was close to being settled.
Gascoigne is one of several dozen people suing the paper over claims that their phones were hacked. Lawyer Jeremy Reed said the case was "settling" but didn't give any further details.
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July after the full hacking scandal broke.