LONDON – Britain's phone hacking inquiry heard Wednesday that it was "unlikely" CNN host Piers Morgan was unaware the illegal practice was taking place while he was editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper, as his new employer in the US asked for an explanation of how he heard a private message on Heather Mills' phone.
A day after Morgan denied knowingly running stories gained through hacking, James Hipwell, a former journalist at the British tabloid told the Leveson inquiry that the practice was commonplace and that Morgan was a very hands-on boss.
"Looking at his style of editorship, I would say it was very unlikely that he didn't know what was going on because, as I have said, there wasn't very much he didn't know about," Hipwell said.
"As I think he said in his testimony, he took a very keen interest in the work of his journalists."
He added that hacking seemed to be "perfectly acceptable" to some of the Mirror's senior editorial staff, and "the practice seemed to be common on other newspapers as well."
However, Hipwell was unable to confirm that he had ever seen phone hacking taking place in front of Morgan or discussion of the practice while the editor was present.
Hipwell was sacked by the Daily Mirror and given a six-month prison sentence in February 2006 for buying and selling stocks he had talked up in the newspaper's business column.
On Tuesday, Morgan, appearing via video-link from the US at the government-ordered judicial investigation, stuck to his line that he was not aware of phone hacking until 2001 and could not remember who first told him about it.
Morgan was editor of the News of the World from 1994-95 and the Daily Mirror from 1995-2004, when he was sacked for publishing fake photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
He also refused repeatedly Tuesday to reveal who played him a recording of a voicemail message left by Paul McCartney for his future wife Heather Mills. Lord Leveson indicated the only person who could have lawfully authorized Morgan to listen to the message was Mills herself, and that she could be called to give evidence on that point.
On Wednesday, Mills released a statement denying she had played the message for Morgan, leading CNN -- where he now presents a nightly chat show -- to say it was "seeking a response to the Mills statement from Morgan," Sky News reported.
Mills said 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."
She added, "Piers Morgan is doing all he can to deter the Leveson inquiry from finishing their important job."
The press ethics inquiry was triggered following the scandal surrounding the now-defunct News of the World tabloid which was run by the UK newspaper subsidiary of News Corp., which also owns NewsCore. The paper was closed down in June over claims it hired a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, to hack into the voicemail messages of celebrities, lawmakers, the families of Britain's war dead and even the cell phone of a murdered girl.
On Wednesday, Mulcaire won a legal battle to force the subsidiary to continue paying his legal fees, overturning a decision by News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch to stop the payments.