Phone-hacking was a 'bog-standard'tool for journalists working on the Daily Mirror's showbiz desk, according to a former business reporter on the paper who was jailed for his part in a "tip, buy and sell" conspiracy.
Giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry this morning, James Hipwell claimed the practice was widespread and that one showbiz reporter showed him the technique for intercepting voicemails.
He also alleged that hacking was so rife on the desk that reporters deleted a message from a celebrity's voicemail so that rival journalists from the Sun would be unable to pick up the story.
Hipwell claimed that on one occasion during his disciplinary proceedings with Trinity Mirror following the City Slickers share-tipping scandal, a showbiz journalist offered to hack then editor Piers Morgan's voicemail to try to find out information to help his case.
Hipwell, the Mirror's former City Slicker columnist, was jailed in 2006 for making £41,000 in a "tip, buy and sell" conspiracy through the column between 1999 and 2000.
Fellow columnist Anil Bhoyrul pleaded guilty to buying shares before they tipped them in their column before selling them on after they rocketed in price.
Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan and his wife also bought almost £67,000 of shares the day before they were tipped in the newspaper but was later cleared of any wrongdoing by both the Department of Trade and Industry and an internal Mirror inquiry.
All three were severely censured by the PCC in 2000 for breaching the Editors' Code.
'Hacking was considered a bog-standard journalistic tool'
In his evidence today Hipwell alleged that 'no consideration'was given to ethics on the newspaper and that corporate governance was a 'totally alien concept to most journalists". As an example he cited what he called the 'unfettered activities'of the Mirror's showbiz team.
'I sat next to the Mirror's showbusiness journalists on the 22nd floor of Canary Wharf Tower and so was able to see at close hand how they operated,'Hipwell said in a witness statement.
'I witnessed journalists carrying out repeated privacy infringements, using what has now become a well-known technique to hack in to the voicemail systems of celebrities, their friends, publicists, and public relations executives.
'The openness and frequency of their hacking activities game the impression that hacking was considered a bog-standard journalistic tool for gathering information.
'For example, I would on occasion hear two or more members of the showbusiness team discussing what they had heard on voicemails openly across their desks.
'One of the reporters showed me the technique, giving me a demonstration of how to hack in to voicemails.'
He added: 'The practice seemed to be common on other newspapers as well – journalists at the Mirror appeared to know their counterparts from the Sun were also listening to voicemail messages, because on one occasion, I heard members of the Mirror team joking about having deleted a message from a celebrity's voicemail in order to ensure to ensure that no journalists from the Sun would get the same scoop by hacking in and hearing it themselves."
Despite claiming in his statement that a reporter had merely offered to hack Morgan's phone, in his evidence Hipwell later claimed that the Mirror journalist in fact hacked Morgan's phone 'in front of me", but that it did not obtain 'a great deal of information".
Phone-hacking was 'fair game'
Yesterday Piers Morgan denied having any knowledge of phone-hacking on the Mirror, which he edited between 1996-2004, and repeatedly pointed out that Hipwell was a convicted criminal.
Hipwell, who worked at the paper between 1998-2000 after joining from Business Age magazine, claimed that phone-hacking was 'entirely accepted by senior editors on the newspaper". Voicemail interception was made illegal by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
'I don't think the illegality of it was ever considered,'Hipwell said. 'It just seemed to be fair game."
He also found it 'very unlikely'that Morgan was unaware of the practice because he was a 'very hands-on editor'who took a 'great interest'in the source of stories.
He later admitted, however, that he never actually saw phone-hacking being discussed or carried out when Morgan was present.
Hipwell also acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding his dismissal from the Mirror meant people could dismiss his testimony 'as an opportunistic attempt by a disgruntled former employee to 'get even'".
'My criminal conviction also discredits me as a witness,'he said, before claiming that he had 'no axe to grind'against Trinity Mirror or Morgan,
'I suffered kidney failure after leaving the Mirror and have undergone two kidney transplants since, one from my brother and most recently from my wife only last year, so have had bigger things to grapple with than my time at the Mirror,'he said.
'I have spent 11 years trying to move on what happened and have nothing to gain from reminding the world about my criminal conviction. But I felt compelled to speak, when asked, about what I saw take place in the Mirror newsroom between 1998 and 2000."