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Scandal spreads as phone hacking lawsuits hit Mirror newspaper, once edited by Piers Morgan

Four alleged phone hacking victims have filed suit against the publisher of Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper, a tabloid once edited by CNN presenter Piers Morgan, a prominent lawyer said late Monday. As far as is publicly known, the lawsuits are the first to hit a publication outside Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire and could mark the further expansion of a scandal which has already tarnished a big chunk of Britain's establishment.

Mark Lewis said the new suits had been filed against the Trinity Mirror Group at Britain's High Court. He confirmed the claimants' identities — former England soccer coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, soccer star David Beckham's family nanny Abbie Gibson, former Blackburn Rovers soccer team captain Garry Flitcroft, and U.K. television actress Shobna Gulati — but gave few other details.

Britain's Judicial Office said it had no details on the suits. Trinity Mirror spokesman Nick Fullagar did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Word that the Mirror now stands accused of eavesdropping on private voicemails may surprise few in Britain's scandal-scarred media. Insiders have been warning since last year that furor over phone hacking which first erupted at Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid would end up spreading to the paper's competitors. Three months ago, the Metropolitan Police's deputy assistant commissioner, Sue Akers, testified that her detectives had begun investigating Trinity Mirror — along with the U.K.'s Express Newspapers, owned by Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell PLC.

"Our assessment is that there are reasonable grounds to suspect offenses have been committed," she said at the time.

The lawsuits are bad news for Trinity Mirror, which counts roughly 135 publications across the U.K. and has struggled financial amid a general fall in newspaper readership. The legal fallout from the News of the World saga has cost News Corp. tens of millions of pounds (dollars) in settlements and legal fees. The Mirror's bills, although likely to fall well short of News Corp.'s, could still be substantial.

The lawsuits are also a potential embarrassment for CNN and for Morgan, who has repeatedly denied claims that he knew that phone hacking had taken place at the tabloid he edited between 1995 and 2004.

Lewis declined to comment on the precise nature or the timing of the alleged phone hacking offenses, but earlier this year BBC host Jeremy Paxman spoke of a 2002 lunch at which Morgan teased Eriksson's one-time girlfriend about private messages she'd shared with the soccer coach — even going so far as to imitate the pair's accents.

Morgan, who has also boasted of listening to voicemails exchanged by former Beatle Paul McCartney and his ex-wife Heather Mills, has never explained how he became privy to the messages.

Morgan's publicist, Meghan McPartland, didn't offer any comment Monday, referring all questions to Trinity Mirror.

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Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter